Despite Seattle rain, state a hot spot for malignant melanoma

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 that turns purple when exposed to the sun's UV rays.

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, the EPA said, 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. In Seattle, King County Executive Ron Sims will proclaim Monday, May 1, a SunWise Action Day. 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. Another ozone layer, tropospheric ozone, is found at the planet's surface, where it helps to make smog.

In the 1980s, scientists began finding clues that the upper 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.

"Really it has to do with the angle," said meteorologist Ron Miller in the Spokane office of the National Weather Service. "In winter, the sun is low on the horizon and the sun's beam is at a lower angle. It has to go through more of the atmosphere. Even in the middle of summer at sunrise it doesn't feel as hot on your skin as at the middle of the day."

Chemicals that contribute to destruction of protective ozone include chlorofluorocarbons, the pesticide methyl bromide, halons used in fire extinguishers and methyl chloroform used in businesses. The United States and other countries have agreed to phase out these chemicals under the United Nations' 1992 Montreal Protocol.