Monday, June 21, 2004


Air pollution and skin cancer:

Panic: 'Cancer warning in heatwave' warned the London Evening Standard this week. It follows a warning issued by the Met Office that levels of UV light were very high, with increased risk of sunburn. The rising levels were blamed on a lack of cloud and lower-than-normal levels of air pollution.

There are currently record UV levels because there is not a great deal of pollution around. Wayne Elliot of the Met Office told the Standard: 'Normally our air is brought up through Europe, and has a lot of pollutants in it. But currently the warm spell is coming from the deep tropics and it is unusually clear. This means far more UV gets through the atmosphere than normal.' Not only could this mean more sunburn, but there are warnings that it could increase the risk of skin cancer in later life.

Don't panic: This report came a week after another Standard article suggested that air pollution levels could, in extreme circumstances, knock 10 years of the lives of some Londoners. Now we have a warning of a cancer risk based on too little air pollution.

As we have pointed out before on "Spiked", the link between skin cancer and sunlight is complex, with the most dangerous forms having the weakest association with sunlight. Air pollution has been a major health hazard in the past, but levels are now so low that only those who are already very sensitive to air quality due to pre-existing conditions are affected - and even then, they are generally affected only on days when weather conditions conspire to push pollution levels well above average.

These stories show how the proliferation of health panics means that almost any behaviour can be deemed dangerous. Avoiding one risk opens you up to another. Going by the reports above, we could only avoid risk if we walked around with oxygen masks on, dressed from head to toe in black, and wore factor 50 sunscreen - but we would still need to take vitamin D supplements to make up for our losses due to a lack of sun on our skin. But this would surely be to no avail because someone would then produce a report saying that wearing sunscreen causes cancer.

Oh dear, they already have.

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