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Tanning beds as deadly as arsenic and mustard gas

News - Health Articles

 International cancer experts have moved tanning beds and other sources of ultraviolet radiation into the top cancer risk category, deeming them as deadly as arsenic and mustard gas. For years, scientists have described tanning beds and ultraviolet radiation as "probable carcinogens."

A new analysis of about 20 studies concludes the risk of skin cancer jumps by 75 percent when people start using tanning beds before age 30. Experts also found that all types of ultraviolet radiation caused worrying mutations in mice, proof the radiation is carcinogenic. Previously, only one type of ultraviolet radiation was thought to be lethal.

The new classification means tanning beds and other sources of ultraviolet radiation are definite causes of cancer, alongside tobacco, the hepatitis B virus and chimney sweeping, among others.

The research was published online in the medical journal Lancet Oncology on Wednesday, by experts at the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, the cancer arm of the World Health Organization.

"People need to be reminded of the risks of sunbeds," said Vincent Cogliano, one of the cancer researchers. "We hope the prevailing culture will change so teens don't think they need to use sunbeds to get a tan."

Most lights used in tanning beds give off mainly ultraviolet radiation, which cause skin and eye cancer, according to the International Agency for Cancer Research.

The classification of tanning beds as carcinogenic was disputed by Kathy Banks, chief executive of The Sunbed Association, a European trade association of tanning bed makers and operators.

"The fact that is continuously ignored is that there is no proven link between the responsible use of sunbeds and skin cancer," Banks said in a statement. She said most users of tanning beds use them less than 20 times a year.

But as use of tanning beds has increased among people under 30, doctors have seen a parallel rise in the numbers of young people with skin cancer. In Britain, melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer, is now the leading cancer diagnosed in women in their 20s. Normally, skin cancer rates are highest in people over 75.

Previous studies found younger people who regularly use tanning beds are eight times more likely to get melanoma than people who have never used them. In the past, WHO warned people younger than 18 to stay away from tanning beds.

Cogliano cautioned that ultravoilet radiation is not healthy, whether it comes from a tanning bed or from the sun. The American Cancer Society advises people to try bronzing or self-tanning creams instead of tanning beds.

Tanning beds are as deadly as mustard gas, arsenic, plutonium and other known carcinogens, international cancer experts have ruled.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer yesterday moved UV tanning beds and ultraviolet radiation to its highest cancer risk category, removing any ambiguity about their threat by labelling them "carcinogenic to humans."

The move was based on a comprehensive review of studies, which found the risk of skin melanoma increases by 75 per cent when the use of tanning devices starts before the age of 30.

The report, by the agency's Cancer Monograph Working Group, was published online yesterday in the medical journal Lancet Oncology. The agency is the cancer arm of the World Health Organization.

Until now, ultraviolet radiation and UV tanning equipment have been classified as "probably carcinogenic to humans." The new classification places them alongside other known cancer-causing agents, including asbestos, benzene and the human papillomavirus.

Cancer experts and advocacy groups welcomed the elevated classification.

"This is important ... it is another piece of evidence one can point to from a very conservative and eminent body," said Dr. David Hogg, a cancer physician at Princess Margaret Hospital. "It doesn't change my opinion, which is tanning beds are a dangerous carcinogen and should not be used at all.

"I'm seeing increasing numbers of young people who use tanning beds who come to my clinic with melanoma, particularly young women." A 2008 study by the U.S. National Cancer Institute found the annual incidence of melanoma among young women had risen by 50 per cent since 1980, an increase Canadian experts said was likely also happening north of the border. Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. In 2009, some 5,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with it and almost 1,000 will die.

In Ontario, the Canadian Cancer Society is calling for restrictions on the industry, including an all-out ban for patrons under the age of 18.

"Raising the classification of tanning devices to the highest cancer risk category further supports the message that there's no safe way to get a tan," said Irene Gallagher Jones, a senior manager at the society's Ontario Division.

According to the Cancer society, artificial tanning lights can emit rays five times stronger than the midday sun.

The cancer society is also advocating for mandated standards for staff who operate tanning beds, a government-run registry of tanning equipment use, and restrictions on advertising to youth, such as ads promoting pre-prom tanning. Last year, Ontario MPP Khalil Ramal introduced a private member's bill calling for a similar ban, which is before the standing committee on social policy.

New Brunswick, Scotland, France, Germany and at least five Australian states have banned anyone under 18 from accessing artificial tanning equipment. In the U.S., 29 states have restrictions on youths using tanning beds, with many requiring parental consent.

Steven Gilroy, executive director of the Joint Canadian Tanning Association, which represents 1,200 tanning salons across Canada, dismissed the international agency's report.

"When you dive into the research ... there is no increased risk," he said. The tanning industry has recently promoted the moderate use of artificial tanning as a way to boost vitamin D levels, which tanning proponents say may be associated with lower risk of some forms of cancer.

But Hogg disagrees with the industry claims: "As far as I'm concerned, tanning beds are like cigarettes and the claims by the tanning industry that they are healthy echo claims by the cigarette industry a generation ago and, in my mind, have just as much validity."

Every year more than one million people are diagnosed with skin cancer in the United States. Despite this fact, hundreds of thousands of people routinely visit tanning salons.

Are tanning booths less dangerous than tans from the sun? The fact is that the UVA rays that are emitted from the Ultraviolet A light sources in tanning salons are two to three times more powerful than the UVA rays which occur naturally from the sun.

Scientists and most lay people agree that solar radiation is damaging to our skin. The first effect of sun damage that we notice is that our skin may become pink, red, or blistered from a severe burn. Forms of photosensitivity including drug reactions and sun poisoning may also be initiated by tanning salon exposure.

Some who tan not only accept, but expect their skin to pass through these damaging changes. They believe that these damaging skin changes are the path to a deep, golden glow. They want to appear healthy. So they often accept the pink, red, and even severe burns and blisters, as necessary tribulations that must occur.

What are the long-term effects of UV exposure?

Over time, the effects of too much UVA exposure can lead to eye damage, immune system changes, cataracts, wrinkles and premature aging of the skin, and skin cancers. Look at your own skin and compare areas such as the front of your hands and your face to areas that are almost never exposed to solar radiation. The difference in skin texture, tone, wrinkles, ect. that you see are caused by exposure to the sun.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer and approximately 90% of all skin cancers can be traced to UV exposure. Skin cancer most often occurs on the face, and almost never on the buttocks, inner thighs, or under the arms. The three main types of skin cancer are melanoma, basal-cell carcinoma, and squamous-cell carcinoma. Malignant melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and its incidence is rapidly rising in women under 40.

Who's at Risk?

Skin cancer can happen to anyone, however the risk is greatest for people who:
  • have fair skin. 
  • have blonde, red, or light brown hair.
  • have blue, green, or gray eyes.
  • always burn before tanning.
  • burn easily.
  • don't tan easily, but spend a lot of time outdoors.
  • have previously been treated for skin cancer or who have a family history of skin cancer (if you have a family history of melanoma, see your physician for regular skin exams).
  • live in or take regular vacations to high altitudes (Ultraviolet exposure increases with altitude).
  • work indoors all week and try to play "catch up" on the weekend.

Warning Signs of Skin Cancer

As with many cancers, early detection and treatment offers your best chance of remission and survival. Here are some signs that may indicate skin cancer:
  • A skin abnormality that increases in size and appears multicolored, pink, red, black, brown, tan, pearly, translucent, or tan.
  • A mole that changes color, textures, grows, becomes irregular in shape, or that is bigger than a pencil eraser.
  • A spot or growth that continually itches, hurts, becomes crusty, scabs, or bleeds.
  • An open sore that does not heal after 4 weeks or one that heals and reopens.

Regular skin self-exams could save an estimated 4,500 lives annually. Anytime you are concerned about a growth or spot on your skin, it is best to seek the advice of your physician.

Protecting Your Skin

Most of us know the importance of using a sunscreen to help prevent damaging rays from penetrating our skin. Using the proper SPF for your skin type and circumstances may lower your risk of skin cancer, however sunscreens will not undo damage that has already been done to your skin.

Those who seek their tans from tanning salons should be aware of other considerations:

  • Those who burn easily or never tan in the sun should not use tanning salons.
  • Check with your pharmacist for possible drug interactions.
  • UV radiation can aggravate cold sores in people who are prone to them.
  • Always use the protective goggles which should be available at the tanning salon. Your eyes can be severely burned by the intense UV rays emitted by the light source.

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