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Climate Change May Increase Skin Cancer Risk


Skin cancer rates have been increasing worldwide, and climate change factors – like depleting ozone layers – may be a factor.

Climate change may be contributing to the increasing rates of skin cancer observed worldwide, as depleting ozone layers continue to result in people being exposed to higher levels of ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

“It’s important to consider what environmental influences may be impacting the increased incidence of skin cancer. When you think about skin, it’s really our largest organ and it is our primary interface with the environment. So skin is particularly prone to and susceptible to influences – and therefore disease – that may be environmentally induced,” said Dr. Eva R. Parker, assistant professor of Dermatology at Vanderbilt University.

Climate Change’s Impact on Skin

Chloroflurocarbon (CFC), a chemical that has been used as a refrigerant, propellant and solvent, has been definitively linked to climate change, as it destroys the stratospheric ozone later. While the Montreal Protocol treaty has been phasing out the use of CFC, the effects of the chemical are, unfortunately, long-lasting.

“The (stratospheric) ozone layer serves as what I like to think of as Earth’s broad-brim, sun-protective hat, and that ozone layer absorbs and prevents a large amount of UVB radiation from reaching Earth’s surface,” Parker said.

The Earth’s average temperature is rising as a result of climate change. Not only can heat promote carcinogenesis directly in the skin, according to Parker, but it also has a simpler effect that can impact skin cancer risk: when it is warmer outside, people tend to wear less clothing and spend more time outdoors, again absorbing UV radiation.

Air pollution – which, like climate change, is a result of burning fossil fuels – can also increase skin cancer rates, Parker explained. When fossil fuels burn, they release carbon dioxide and other pollutants like particulate matter and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which have been linked to other cancer types, such as kidney and liver cancer.

“So you have manmade sources for air pollution like burning fossil fuels, but you also have natural sources like wildfires. Those chemicals interact with the skin through various mechanisms… They activate complex molecular pathways, including the aryl hydrocarbon receptor, which then triggers a number of bad things in the skin, including inflammation and carcinogenesis,” Parker said.

Decrease Skin Cancer Risk and Climate Change

Individuals can take steps to mitigate their risk of developing skin cancer as a result of exposure to UV radiation. Actions include:

  • Avoiding being outside during peak sun-intensity hours (10 a.m. until 4 p.m.)
  • Wearing protective clothing and hats
  • Using sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, and reapplying every 90 minutes

Regarding exposure to air pollution, Parker suggests that people check air quality before spending time outdoors. This can be done through various websites or even smartphone apps.

Finally, Parker said that everyone has a role in preventing climate change altogether. People can make simple changes in their lives that can help. These include:

  • Eating less meat
  • Changing out traditional lightbulbs for LED lightbulbs
  • Supporting companies and policies that are climate-friendly

“It’s important to recognize that climate change has been happening and will continue to happen. It is affecting our health already and will continue to do so with greater magnitude for future generations,” Parker said. “Individual patients who have concerns about these effects on themselves or their family members should discuss that with their physician.”

This article was initially published by our sister publication Cure.

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