It's September. The summer sun (what little we had of it) is waning and the autumnal equinox occurred this week.
Thoughts have turned from summer vacations to back-to-school. In the office, parents vie for those precious sports physical slots. And my spiels now usually go from sun screen to library cards.
But nowadays the dangers of UV radiation don't end with summer. Nowadays, tans can be had year-round. My spiels, if they are to keep up with fashion and technology, must now include the dangers of artificial tanning.
Let's start with the bottom line: tanning is dangerous. The ultraviolet radiation used in tanning beds and booths doesn't just cause sunburns and itchy, dry, aged-looking skin. It can also aggravate conditions such as lupus. And the long-tern effects of UV rays are even scarier. They contribute to eye problems such as ocular melanoma and cataracts and cause skin cancer.
The younger a girl starts tanning, the higher the risk. A recent comprehensive review of scientific studies on tanning found that skin cancer increased by 75 percent when women started tanning before the age of 30. In June 2009, scientists from the International Agency for Research of Cancer met to reassess the cancer-causing ability of various types of radiation. They increased the risk of tanning devices to Group 1, "carcinogenic to humans." By taking out the word "probably" they raised the warning to their highest possible risk category.
Tanning is — unfortunately — very popular, especially among girls and young women. Of the 1 million people who tan every day, 70 percent are females between the ages of 16 and 49. This popularity seems to increase with age. The incidence of tanning doubles from ages 14 to 15, and then doubles again at age 17, when 35 percent of U.S. teenage girls this age report having used a tanning facility at least three times in their lives.
Despite the fact that the World Health Organization discourages the use of artificial tanning in children younger than 18 years, few states have successfully banned the practice in kids. Some states limit access by children under 14 or 16; others require parental consent or a doctor's order for its use in this age range.
The tanning industry advertises its products as "responsible" and "controlled," implying that artificial UV radiation is safer than natural sun. But in fact, the UV-A radiation, the primary radiation emitted by tanning lamps, can be 10 to 15 times more intense than the sun at mid-day.
The dangers are real, but real far off to a teen. To a teenager, the risk of skin cancer in their 50s may seem like a reasonable trade-off for a fabulous tan today. It is up to us, as parents and protectors of children, to educate ourselves about the dangers of artificial tanning in kids, and then pass the lessons on to our kids.
Dr. Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a board certified pediatrician with Merrimack Valley Child and Adolescent Health and Merrimack Valley Hospital. Her office is at Merrimack Health Center, 62 Brown St. adjacent to the hospital. She can be reached at 978-521-8108. Parents are invited to e-mail questions for future columns to CRoy.MVCAH@comcast.net.