Skin cancer common in state

SEATTLE – The Northwest is famous for its rainy days, but there’s sufficient sun that Washington state ranks first nationally for women and fifth for men in the sun-linked skin cancer, malignant melanoma, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

Now the federal agency is trying to develop healthy, “sun-wise” habits in children, since melanomas take years to develop.

The EPA’s SunWise Program provides a free kit to schools with 40 activity cards, divided by age group – and a white Frisbee disc that turns purple when exposed to the sun’s UV rays.

Stay safe in the sun

Here are tips from the Environmental Protection Agency for dealing wisely with the sun:

* Limit time in the midday sun. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

* Seek shade. Staying under cover is a simple way to protect yourself from sun.

* Always use sunscreen. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor of at least 15 and use it generously wherever your skin is showing. Reapply every 2 hours. Even waterproof sunscreen can come off when you towel off, sweat or spend extended periods of time in the water.

* Wear a hat. A hat with a wide brim offers good protection for your eyes, ears, face and neck.

* Cover up. Wear tightly woven, loose-fitting and full-length clothing.

* Wear sunglasses that block UV radiation. Sunglasses that provide 99 percent to 100 percent UVA and UVB protection will greatly reduce sun exposure that can lead to cataracts and other eye damage.

* Avoid sunlamps and tanning parlors. The light source from sunbeds and sunlamps damages skin and unprotected eyes.

* Watch for the UV Index. The UV Index provides important information to help you plan your outdoor activities in ways that prevent overexposure to the sun.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency

The sun-sensitive Frisbee is “our most popular activity by far,” SunWise program manager Paula Selzer said Friday during a Seattle visit.

Demonstrators dab assorted sunscreen and skin lotions on the white disc, take it outside for some sun and then let students see how much – or how little – protection various lotions provide from UV rays. Protected areas stay white.

So far – nationwide – more than 13,000 schools and 900 less-formal education centers are registered to use the program. Of those, 155 of the schools are in the greater Seattle area and 350 are elsewhere in Washington state. This year, in Seattle and Houston, the EPA is testing an effort to expand the program from schools to the larger community – getting the word out through Girl Scout troops, athletic programs, libraries and museums.

“We’re here because Seattle has a reputation for being cloudy and rainy,” Selzer said. “We wanted to teach people that even though there’s a cloudy sky, you can still get burnt.”

The focus is on children because skin damage is cumulative. A sunburn this week could take 20 years to become skin cancer, now the most common form of cancer. UV rays can damage skin in as little as 15 minutes and five or more sunburns can double a person’s lifetime skin-cancer risk.

Selzer said the goal is to make children aware of sunburn dangers before they become teens.

Currently, it’s estimated that 2.3 million teens visit a tanning salon at least once a year, and that fewer than half ever use sunscreen outdoors.

More than a million cases of skin cancer are expected to be diagnosed this year in the United States, and roughly 10 percent will be malignant melanoma, which causes more than 70 percent of skin cancer deaths.

According to the EPA, an American dies of melanoma every 67 minutes. The disease is expected to cause 7,910 deaths this year, 5,020 men and 2,890 women. It’s the fifth-leading cause of cancer in Washington state, with rates growing an average of 6 percent a year since 1992. In 2002, the most recent year for which figures were available, 2,224 new cases were reported in the state, causing 155 deaths.

May is National Melanoma and Skin Cancer Prevention Month. A fundraising walkathon sponsored by the American Dermatological Association and the Melanoma Foundation is scheduled May 6 to raise melanoma awareness. Free screenings will be provided by dermatologists during the event at Lake Sammamish Park in suburban Issaquah.

The sun was not always so dangerous. Its rays were filtered through the stratospheric ozone layer that lies between 6 and 30 miles above Earth’s surface.

In the 1980s, scientists began finding clues that the ozone layer was being depleted – allowing more of the sun’s ultraviolet, or UV, radiation to reach the surface and increasing the risk of skin and eye problems.

The greatest risk of damaging sun exposure is during the summer at midday.

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