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Off-Field Paintball Injuries on the Rise

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Jorel Travis, a 20-year-old mother, knows the pain that paintball pellets can cause.

When she 15 years old, she was standing outside an ice cream parlor in Fort Collins, Colo., when she was attacked by a neighborhood teen who fired off a paintball gun into the crowd. The April 1998 assault left her legally blind in one eye.

"We where eating ice cream outside and a guy yelled," Travis said. "We turned and looked and the guy in the backseat had a paintball gun. I was hit a couple times and directly in the eye."

Justin Barton, the shooter, was 15 at the time and was riding with his cousins, who had been shooting the paintball guns at buildings. He thought it would be fun to shoot into a crowd. He did not realize that anyone would get hurt.

After reading in the paper that the girl he hit could be blind, he turned himself in and spent six days in a juvenile facility. He also speaks to young people about the potential dangers of paintball.

"I think about it every day still," said Barton, now 21. "I try to put it behind me but it doesn't always work that way."

Injuries Have Doubled

Played by close to 10 million people at more than 2,500 sites across the country, the sport of paintball has become increasingly popular in recent years. According to a new study in the Journal of Pediatrics, the number of eye injuries treated in emergency rooms caused by paintball accidents more than doubled from 545 in 1998 to 1,200 in 2000.

Most of the injuries were due to children playing without protective mask or goggles in unsupervised locations such as back yards, woods and basements instead of commercial areas specifically set up for paintball.

Paintball guns, filled with marble-sized gelatin capsules of water-soluble paint, are powerful. They can shoot pellets at distances of up to 300 feet a second, as fast as some bullets. Those small pellets moving at high speeds these guns can cause serious damage to the human eye. Over the years, the game of paintball has been taken out of the playing field it was designed for numerous times. In 1996, a group of pranksters in Los Angeles videotaped a series of assaults with paintball guns.

Just last week, 12-year-old Chris Estes was sitting on his bike outside his home in Raleigh, N.C., when four teenagers descended on him with a paintball gun.

The teens were arrested and charged with assault. Chris may never again be able to see out of his left eye.

Safety First

Those who run paintball facilities say that it is a game that should be played with safety gear, in a controlled environment. Many commercial paintball centers have switched to full face masks, which are better at protecting the eyes than earlier versions of paintball masks.

"Without safety, the sport doesn't get anywhere, you know," said Jim Stiner, senior manager of Cousins Paintball, which has several locations on New York's Long Island.

Children who play paintball need to wear safety equipment, Stiner said

"They're going to hurt themselves," Stiner said. "That's why they need to wear the goggles and follow the safety precautions."

Travis says Barton apologized to her and she doesn't habor any anger toward him. She still suffers from problems such as headaches and general eye strain, and is not eligible for certain jobs because of her lack of depth perception.

"I can only see lights and shadows," she said. "It can be distracting. There are little black dots sometimes."

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