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

Journal of Environmental Health, December 2001 | Go to article overview

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. …

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