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W.Va.’s melanoma death rate higher than average

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More West Virginians die from melanoma -- the most serious type of skin cancer -- than in the country as a whole, according to one local health official.

The reason?

"It goes back to what people need to do to protect themselves," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, health officer and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.

While the use of sunscreen has increased nationally, half of adults ages 18 to 29 still reported at least one sunburn in the past year, according to a recent Morbidity and Mortality weekly report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Living in West Virginia presents its own risks in terms of sun exposure and tanning, local health officials said. But they said new rules from the Food and Drug Administration and proposed legislation about tanning might help reduce these hazards.

In 2008, the most recent year for which data are available, out of every 100,000 West Virginians, 24 men and just more than 16 women had invasive melanoma, according to the West Virginia Cancer Registry.

And from 2004 to 2008, Cabell, Kanawha, Pocahontas, Putnam and Wood counties had statistically higher rates of invasive melanoma compared with the state's rate, according to the registry.

Susan Jordan, nurse supervisor at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said she thinks people in West Virginia are more likely to develop melanoma because of the prevalence of outdoor jobs.

One way to combat the effects of the sun is to wear sunscreen. The FDA unveiled new requirements for over-the-counter sunscreen in June 2011, which were supposed to be implemented by the summer of 2012. One of the major changes is that sunscreens have to be tested for both UVB and UVA protection.

Currently, the SPF level on sunscreen addresses UVB protection but not UVA protection, Gupta said, and UVA is what contributes to skin cancer. Sunscreens also can no longer be labeled as waterproof or sweat-proof, according to the FDA's website.

For people who already have sunscreen saved from last summer, Gupta recommends other precautions. He said to reapply frequently and to avoid the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

For people who are buying new sunscreen, he said to keep the SPF near 30 and to choose sunscreen labeled "beach" or "sport."

Indoor tanning beds present another cancer hazard. People who tan before age 35 increase their risk of melanoma by 75 percent, Gupta said.

"A tanned skin really is unhealthy skin because it's damaged," he said.

The CDC and the National Cancer Institute analyzed data from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey about indoor tanning. The highest rates of tanning were found among white women ages 18-21, with 31.8 percent reporting tanning. White women ages 22-25 had the second-highest rate, with 29.6 percent saying they tanned during the past year.

Indoor tanning was especially prevalent among 18- to 21-year-old women in the Midwest and among 22- to 25-year-old women in the South, according to the CDC report.

Jordan said the number of people who tan in West Virginia is lower than other places because of lower incomes and lack of accessibility to tanning beds.

But she also said people who can't afford other things they want might choose to go tanning.

"Tanning is one of the easier ways to feel better about yourself," she said.

The West Virginia Senate passed a bill in February preventing people under the age of 18 from using tanning beds. The bill was then sent to the House of Delegates, where it died. Lawmakers are studying the issue further this year.

Gupta said the law would be an important step in regulating a dangerous "fashion trend."

"This is one legislation that completely makes sense from a public health aspect," he said.

Jordan warned that it's crucial for people who tan to understand the dangers of the activity.

"What they see is this pretty, golden skin on the top," she said. "What they're not seeing is the dead, burnt skin on the bottom."

Reach Alison Matas at alison.matas@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5100.


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