Ah, summerís finally here. Long, sunny days that are great for growing crops and getting never-ending outdoor work done. But there is a serious downside to this seasonís good weather that warrants attention: unprotected exposure to the sun is bad for your health.
Big deal, you may think, Iíve been working outside for years without any problem, and who doesnít like a nice tan? The problem is that ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun can lead to skin cancer. Common sites for skin cancer include the face, tips of ears, hands, neck, forearms and lips -- areas that farmers typically leave uncovered.
Know your skin. The skin is the largest organ in the body, and it has 3 layers. From the outside in, they are: the epidermis, the dermis, and the subcutis. The top layer of the skin, the epidermis, is very thin and serves to protect the deeper layers of skin and the organs. The epidermis itself has three layers: an upper, a middle, and a bottom layer composed of basal cells. These basal cells divide into squamous cells, which make keratin that helps protect the body.
Also found in the epidermis is another type of cell called a melanocyte. These cells produce the pigment melanin. The tan or brown color of skin comes from melanin, which helps protect the deeper layers of the skin from the harmful effects of the sun.
Two types of skin cancer. Skin cancers are divided into non-melanomas and melanomas. Non-melanomas, usually basal cell and squamous cell cancers, are the most common cancers of the skin. Because they rarely spread elsewhere in the body, they are less worrisome than melanomas.
Melanoma is a cancer that begins in the melanocytes. Because most of these cells keep on making melanin, melanoma tumors are often brown or black, but not always. While having dark skin lowers the risk of melanoma, it does not mean that a person with dark skin will never develop melanoma. Melanoma is almost always curable in its early stages. But it can spread to other parts of the body. Melanoma is much less common than basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, but it is far more serious.
The extent of the problem. Cancer of the skin is the most common of all cancers. Melanoma accounts for about 4% of skin cancer cases, but it causes most skin cancer deaths. The number of new cases of melanoma in the United States is on the rise. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2006 there will be 62,190 new cases of melanoma in this country. About 7,910 people will die of this disease. Persons with white skin are 10 times more likely to have it than African Americans, but anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of skin color.
Cumulative sun exposure is a major factor in development of skin cancer. Small changes occur in the skin each time it is exposed to sunlight. People who burn easily, rarely tan, freckle or have a fair complexion, have blonde or red hair, or have blue or gray eyes, experience greater skin changes. Skin cancer usually is not associated with a single, painful sunburn, but rather with repeated exposure to the sun and changes in the skinís makeup. By taking a few simple precautions you can reduce your risk of skin cancer.
Long lunch breaks? Stay out of the sun as much as possible when the sun is most intense during the mid-day hours. While this is not always practical for farmers, it does make sense to take a long lunch break, catch up on phone calls, or do some paperwork in the middle of that day when the sunís rays are most damaging. Try to work outside early in the morning or late in the day when itís probably cooler, anyway. While youíre outside, be sure to use sunscreen and to wear appropriate headgear, clothing, and sunglasses.
Use your head. Put on a hat. Protection for the face and other parts of the head can be just that simple, but not all hats do a good job of stopping the sun. The traditional farmerís baseball cap does not protect vulnerable areas on the ears, temples, face, and neck. Other hats provide better protection, such as wide brimmed hats, pith helmets, and hats with flaps. There are many styles to choose from. If it makes you feel better, you can probably get your favorite farm implement logo sewn on these hats, too.
When selecting a hat, make sure it will be cool enough to wear on hot days, and that itís practical for other conditions, like strong wind or rain showers. Most important, make sure itís comfortable so that youíll actually wear it.
Cover up. Clothing helps block the UV rays of the sun from reaching the skin. If possible, wear long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and socks. Closely woven or knitted fabrics are more protective because they lack open spaces that let UV rays through to your skin. Clothes dyed in dark colors can absorb ultraviolet rays and shield your skin better than light colored ones. However, some light colored and white clothes are specially manufactured to block UV rays. If not, they can be washed using a detergent with brighteners which can help absorb those rays and improve protection.
Lather up. Sunscreen lotion should be applied to skin thatís not covered by clothes, but sunscreens are not a substitute for wearing proper clothing. Sunscreens recommended for outdoor workers should have a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of at least 15. This means that you are protected from a reaction to the sunís effects 15 times longer than you are without the sunscreen. Read the label to know when to re-apply sunscreen and whether it is waterproof.
Put on the shades. I was surprised to learn that our eyes need protection from the sun, too. Even the most effective hats can block only 50 percent of the UV rays that reach the eyes. A good shade hat combined with the use of sunglasses is the way to protect eyes from sun exposure. Note that sunglasses vary widely in the amount of protection from UV radiation. A peel-off label on the lens indicates its UV rating as the percentage of UV rays blocked by the sunglasses. If no information is provided by the manufacturer, the sunglasses may not offer any added protection.
The risk of skin cancer is real. Any steps you can take to reduce your cumulative exposure to the sun can help reduce that risk. Make it a habit to protect yourself from the sun.
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