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Summer sun can be deadly if you aren't smart

Luis Fábregas
| Saturday, June 1, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

F aster than you can say heat wave, safety experts emerged from their snow-induced comas this week to spread fear among those of us eager to hit the pool or travel to the coast. The experts are warning about heat strokes, insect bites, fireworks, skin cancer and the ever-popular fecal matter in the pool water.

My inbox was jammed with all sorts of gloom and doom scenarios that suddenly made me wonder if some of these safety wizards are simply trying to make a buck. Not saying statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about E.coli in pool water don't give me pause. The odds are pretty high – 58 percent — of finding this nasty bug in a random pool. But are we really going to force people to shower with soap before swimming, as some experts say we should?

The seriousness of summer safety took a different turn for me after a conversation with skin cancer guru Dr. John Kirkwood of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Melanoma Program. He rides his bike at seven in the morning to avoid the beating, midday sun and swears ballcaps are the best fashion accessory for the protection they provide. Kirkwood and his partners see more than 700 patients a year who show up in their offices after they've noticed an unusual spot on the skin that tested positive for cancer.

About a year ago, Kirkwood treated two teenagers whose cases stood out. Both the 14-year-old and 17-year-old were indoor tanners. You know, the ones who like to lie under fluorescent lamps and swear that bronzed skin is the equivalent of health. The 17-year-old girl, Kirkwood said, had lesions on each of her legs. He'd never seen anything like it. He compared her tanning addiction to being hooked on drugs.

Even among people who've had melanoma — the deadliest of skin cancers — Kirkwood said he finds a remarkable lack of insight about the dangers of the sun. They're completely unaware that ultraviolet radiation from sunshine or tanning beds causes DNA damage to skin cells. Instead, people focus on the feel-good aspect of tanning. That's likely a product of endorphins released by the sun, which is not seen in Western Pennsylvania enough days of the year.

Kirkwood doesn't expect any sensible individual to completely avoid the sun. He knows being healthy means being active. As he told me: “We don't want people to become hermits living in a cave. They just need to be smart.” Two important things you can do are pay attention to what time of day you're in the sun and what type of sunscreen you're putting on your skin, Kirkwood said.

It's hard to know if anyone will ever pay attention to the perils of tanning. If you remember, even Obamacare tried to curb the love affair with tanning beds by creating a special tax on indoor tanning. Indoors tanners for the past two years have been paying an extra 10 percent tax on their bronzing bill, a step meant to discourage people from tanning.

Last time anyone talked about it, the tanning tax had fallen short of expectations and raised barely a third of the $200 million projection. Perhaps more telling, a study last year by Northwestern University researchers showed only a slight drop in tanning customers following implementation of the tax on businesses. Sadly, most people don't care. Such a failure might just mean the only wake-up call to skin cancer will be the cancer itself.

And that can sting far more than a bad sunburn.

Luis Fábregas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7998 or

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