Will Climate Change Raise Skin Cancer Rates?
The increase in skin cancer rates has been connected to a decrease in ozone levels in the earth's atmosphere according to a study completed at Harvard University.
The depletion of the ozone levels are caused, at least in part, by industrial pollution and chemicals from refrigeration, insulation, and aerosol products. Over the years, these chemicals have allowed more UV rays to reach the earth. There is a direct correlation between skin cancer, including melanoma, and exposure to UV rays. While nations around the world have taken major steps to stop the damage to the ozone level, scientists believe it will take at least 50 years for the ozone level to recover. Scientists expect that the levels of skin cancer will continue to increase over this time span, according to the World Health Organization.
What is climate change?
Climate change is the warming of the earth’s surface due to a buildup of greenhouse gases. This is attributed to increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere produced by the use of fossil fuels. (According to NASA, "97 percent or more of actively publishing climate scientists agree: Climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.") The warmer temperatures on earth have caused sea levels to rise, glaciers to melt, and have sparked more extreme weather patterns globally.
Scientists have data on worldwide weather trends dating back to 1880. Throughout history there have been years, such as 1934, that are significantly warmer than others, but scientists see an alarming trend over the past several decades, with annual temperatures continuing to rise. The year 2016 was the warmest on record, with 11 of the 12 months between October 2015 and September 2016 setting high-temperature records, according to NASA. In fact, the five hottest years on record have occurred since 2011.
How are climate change and the ozone level connected?
Many people long viewed climate change and the depletion of the ozone level as two separate phenomena. But in 2012, researchers at Harvard University connected the two. According to James G. Anderson, the lead researcher, climate change creates more severe and more frequent storms, such as Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and 2012's superstorm Sandy. These storms add enormous amounts of water vapor to the stratosphere, which can damage the ozone level. As superstorms grow in frequency, the damage could continue. Although Anderson indicates that he doesn’t know yet how much of an effect climate change will have on the ozone layer over the United States, he is concerned that it could be severe enough to cause a major public health issue.
What does this have to do with skin cancer?
The hole in the ozone layer is located over Antarctica, away from many populated areas. But that doesn’t mean it can’t cause problems for other areas of the world. Australia, which is located close to Antarctica, has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, according to the Cancer Council ACT.
While this might not be a direct result of the hole in the ozone level, the Climate and Health Alliance states, “Australia experiences high levels of UVR resulting from the reduction of the ozone level.” In addition, cold, ozone-depleted air moves away from the region and can disperse over more populated areas. Scientists also worry that the stratosphere over the North Pole could cool down, causing a breakdown of the ozone level there and causing problems in North America, Northern Europe, and Siberia.
Aside from the depletion of the ozone level, scientists worry that climate change could cause an increase of skin cancer rates due to people’s behaviors. As the climate warms, both in the summer and winter, people may be more apt to spend more time outdoors, increasing their UV exposure. Warmer temperatures also mean people wear less protective clothing, trying to stay cool, but exposing themselves to more UV rays, thereby increasing their risk of developing skin cancer. On the other hand, the increased temperatures might send people indoors, in the air conditioning, to stay cool.
Preventing skin cancer
The good news in all of this is that skin cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, if you take basic preventative measures:
Use sunscreen everyday
Make sure your sunscreen is broad spectrum and has an SPF of at least 30
Wear wide brimmed hats and protective clothing when out in the sun
Use wraparound sunglasses to protect your eyes and the sensitive skin around them
Limit your exposure to direct sunlight during the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when possible
Sun protection should be used all year around, even on cold or cloudy days. Early detection of skin cancer is important. Perform regular self skin checks and see your dermatologist on a regular basis for a whole body check.