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Protecting children from Ultraviolet Radiation--Information from the World Health Organization. (EH Update).

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is one component of solar radiation. It is progressively filtered as sunlight passes through the atmosphere, in particular by the ozone layer.

As the ozone layer is depleted, the protective filter activity of the atmosphere is reduced, and more UV radiation, in particular the more harmful UVB, reaches the Earth's surface. In the year 2000, the ozone hole over the Antarctic reached its biggest size ever covering 11.4 million square miles--an area more than three times the size of the United States. For the first time, it also stretched over populated areas, exposing local residents to extreme levels of solar UV radiation. Local authorities warned residents in southern Chile that they could sunburn in less than seven minutes and should avoid spending time outdoors in the middle of the day.

Sustained ozone depletion and enhanced levels of UV radiation on Earth will aggravate UV effects on the human skin, eyes, and immune system. Children are at especially high risk of suffering damage from exposure to UV radiation.

Health Effects of Sun Exposure--A Global Concern

UV radiation causes sunburn and skin cancer and accelerates skin aging. Overexposure can lead to inflammation of the cornea and the conjunctiva in the eye, and causes or accelerates cataract development. A health issue of growing concern is that UV radiation can reduce the effectiveness of the human immune system. Consequently, sun exposure may enhance the risk of infection and could limit the efficacy of immunization against disease. Both of these effects act against the health of poor and vulnerable groups, especially children of the developing world, as many developing countries are located close to the equator and hence exposed to very high levels of UV radiation.

Skin cancer has become the focus of intervention campaigns in Australia, Europe, and North America. Many believe that only fair-skinned people need to be concerned about overexposure to the sun. It is true that darker skin has more protective pigment, but the skin is still susceptible to the damaging effects of UV radiation. Although the incidence of skin cancers is lower in dark-skinned people, skin cancers do occur and are often detected at a later, more dangerous stage. The risk of other UV-related health effects, such as eye damage, premature aging of the skin, and immunosuppression is independent of skin type. For example, a 10 percent decrease in total stratospheric ozone is predicted to result in between 1.6 and 1.75 million additional cases of cataract per year worldwide.

Children Require Special Protection

The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children, including those at all developmental stages from conception to age 18, have the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health and the right to a safe environment. Children require special protection as they are at a higher risk of suffering damage from exposure to UV radiation than adults, for the following reasons:

* A child's skin is thinner and more sensitive than an adult's, and even a short time outdoors in the midday sun can result in serious burns.

* Epidemiological studies demonstrate that frequent sun exposure and sunburn in childhood set the stage for high rates of melanoma later in life.

* Children have more time to develop diseases with long latency, more years of life to be lost, and more suffering to be endured as a result of impaired health. Increased life expectancy further adds to people's risk of developing skin cancers and cataracts.

* Children are more exposed to the sun. Estimates suggest that up to 80 per cent of a person's lifetime exposure to UV is received before the age of 18.

Caring for Children in the Sun

According to an Australian study, four out of five cases of skin cancer are preventable by sensible behavior. Encouraging children to take simple precautions will prevent both short-term and long-term damage while still allowing them to enjoy the time they spend outdoors. Parents should serve as role models, and it is their responsibility to ensure that their children are protected adequately. Infants less than 12 months of age always should be in the shade. Other children should

* cover up with protective clothing, a hat, and sunglasses;

* apply broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPE 15+ (but sunscreen should never be used to prolong the duration of sun exposure);

* limit their time in the midday sun;

* seek shade; and

* avoid sunlamps and tanning parlors.

Sun Protection Is Relevant in All Settings

Sun protection is not only necessary on the beach or at the swimming pool but applies to all outdoor settings. Children can be exposed to intense sunlight on the balcony at home, on weekend trips or a visit to the zoo, during breaks at kindergarten or school, and during outdoor sporting activities.

Particular attention should be paid in the mountains, as UV levels increase by approximately eight percent with every 1,000 meters of altitude. Although UV radiation is most intense under cloudless skies, it may be high even on an overcast day. Many surfaces, such as snow, sand, and water, reflect the sun's rays and add to the overall UV exposure.

World Health Organization (WHO) Activities


This program encourages and evaluates research to fill gaps in scientific knowledge, assesses and quantifies health risks, and develops an appropriate response through guidelines, recommendations, and dissemination of information. Beyond its scientific objectives, INTERSUN provides guidance to national authorities and other agencies about effective sun awareness programs. The programs address different target audiences such as occupationally exposed people, tourists, schoolchildren, and the general public. The program is working toward the development of a framework for children's sun protection education.

Global Solar LIV Index

The UV Index (UVI) was developed by WHO, the U.N. Environment Program, and the World Meteorological Organization as part of an international effort to raise public awareness of the risks of sun exposure. It is a simple measure of the intensity of the sun's ultraviolet rays at the Earth's surface, and in many countries is presented as part of the weather forecast. WHO encourages the media and the tourism industry to publish the UVI forecast and promote sun protection messages.

Global School Health Initiative

Schools are vitally important settings for the promotion of sun protection, and they play a significant role in increasing awareness and changing behavior among children and the people taking care of them. As part of the WHO Information Series on School Health, INTERSUN is preparing a document that will outline the essential steps to be taken in setting up a school initiative on sun protection.
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Publication:Journal of Environmental Health
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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