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Global warming, cancer warning?

Monday 18 April, 2011 by Cairín

Global warming, ozone depletion and climate change are perhaps the greatest threats currently facing our planet. You don't need to look far to see the dramatic impact of the changing environment on all our lives. Whether rebuilding after floods, sweating it out in heat waves or feeling the sting of the hot Australian sun, we are all aware of the effect of environmental change in our daily lives.

Governments around the world are faced with the monumental task of taking on this ever looming environmental threat and Australia will attempt to address the issue with the proposed introduction of a carbon tax in July 2012 . By taxing pollutants, Prime Minister Julia Gillard hopes businesses will have an incentive for adopting greener, more environmentally friendly practices. In addition, the revenue raised from the carbon tax will be re-invested in renewable resources such as solar power.

While opponents and supporters of the carbon tax have brought the important issues of global warming, ozone depletion and climate change into the spotlight, perhaps an issue that is slipping under the radar is the impact of these occurrences on public health.

Recently, there has been increased awareness of the interaction between ozone damage, climate change and the incidence of skin cancer.[1],[2],[3]

When ozone levels are depleted; the atmosphere loses its protective filter resulting in more solar UV radiation reaching the Earth's surface.

Geir Braathen, a senior scientist with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which co-ordinates ozone data globally, said "with no ozone layer, you would have 70 times more UV than we do now."

UV radiation from sunlight has been identified as the cause of around 95% of melanomas and 99% of non-melanoma skin cancers in Australia.[4]

For a country like Australia; already known as one of the skin cancer capitals of the world, the consequences of increased UV radiation would be detrimental.

In the last month alone, the World Meteorological Association reported ozone loss of almost 40% over the Arctic during the Northern Hemisphere winter due to cold weather in the upper atmosphere; an increase of 10% against previous records. According to Dr. Paul Newman, Chief Atmospheric Scientist, NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, the implication of the damage will be that UV radiation levels will increase in the Northern Hemisphere Arctic by about 10% this year.

Australia's position close to Antarctica makes it particularly vulnerable to ozone thinning. This is because every spring, the chlorine carrying polar ice clouds that have formed over the winter, break up releasing the chlorine, which damages the ozone. Winds during this season pick up and blow the damaged ozone towards Australia's southern states.

Ozone depletion is not the only concern when it comes to skin cancer as warming from global greenhouse gas emissions is expected to lead to higher ambient temperatures. Hotter temperatures mean people are more likely to be outdoors, wear fewer clothes and consequently expose themselves to UV radiation from the sun, once again leading to an increased risk of skin cancer.

What can you do?

Going green and living a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle is a good first step, but it is also important to engage in the debate with the companies, government and institutions who are making decisions everyday that affect greenhouse gas emissions.

As for your personal risk, the good news is that skin cancer is one of the most preventable forms of cancer in Australia. Environment change makes it more important than ever to check the UV Alert each day at the SunSmart website, on the SunSmart app for iPhones or in the weather section of the daily papers and when it's three and above, use sun protection. By making sun protection part of your daily routine, you can protect yourself from this deadly disease.

We will continue to monitor new research on the link between climate change and skin cancer so subscribe to our blog today and keep informed!

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[1] Andrady AL, Aucamp PJ, Bais AF, Ballare CL, Bjorn LO, Bornman JF, Caldwell MM, Cullen AP, de Gruijl FR, Erickson 3rd DJ, Flint SD, Hader DP, Hamid HS, Ilyas M, Kulandaivelu G, Kumar HD, McKenzie RL, Longstreth J, Lucas RM, Noonan FP, Norval M, Paul ND, Smith RC, Soloman KR, Sulzberger B, Takizawa Y, Tang X, Torikai A, van der Leun JC, Wilson SR, Worrest RC, Zepp RG. Environmental effects of ozone depletion: 2006 assessment: Interactions of ozone depletion and climate change. Executive summary. Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences 2007; 6 (3): 212-217.

[2] Li F, Stolarski RS, Newman PA. Stratospheric ozone in the post-CFC era. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics 2009; 9: 2207-2213.

[3] McKenzie RL, Aucamp PJ, Bais AF, Bjorn LO, Ilyas M. Changes in biologically-active ultraviolet radiation reaching the Earth's surface. Photochemical & Photobiological Sciences 2007; 6 (3): 218-231.

[4] Armstrong BK. How sun exposure causes skin cancer: An epidemiological perspective. In: Hill D, Elwood JM, English DR, (Eds). Prevention of Skin Cancer. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004, pp. 89-116

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