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Sun worshipping and false gods

Boz magazine, 63: 12, August. 1999.

Brian J Ford

What could be better than lying in the sun, a ballon de rouge in one hand and something soft and responsive in the other? The worries of work evaporate like petrol on a hot pavement as those rays caress the eyelids and the skin glows like a roasted peanut. Sunning yourself on the beach has long been the epitome of a perfect holiday. Not any more. Now, with malignant melanomas mushrooming like dry rot from the floorboards, sunbathing is regarded as about as irresponsible as eating dripping sandwiches or discarding a seat-belt. Pale, white skin is the aim. The collapse of the package holiday to hot-spots is only a matter of time.

Such are the proclamations of modern medicine. These days, medicine depends on fearful headlines. It also depends on polarisation, where everything has to be black or white. There's no room for uncertainty. Like saturated fat, lassitude and cholesterol, sunlight is all bad and that's all there is to say on the matter. Those of us work in science know it doesn't work like that. Science is about the wonder of knowledge and the balance of uncertainties. We are always concerned with the current state of knowledge, and the quest is to change it. Scientists are certain only about uncertainty. It's the poseur, the charlatan, who claims to have diamond-hard certainty in a world of chance.

And so it is with sunshine. Current opinions state that sunshine causes skin cancer, so everyone must avoid it at all costs. However, it was not always like that. Throughout the previous century, people began to realise that sunshine had curative properties. People were sent to the Alps, or to sanatoria built on south-facing coasts, to recover from serious diseases. The aim was simple—to get sunshine on the skin. Sunshine, they found, could cure the sick. To a previous generation of Britons, the sun was anathema. Nobody knew what sunbathing might be. Even at the seaside, people wore enclosing drapes to maintain the paleness of the skin. The new reverence for the sun meant that invalids were encouraged to indulge in sunbathing, and solaria were constructed to make sure that exposure was maximised. TB and psoriasis were treated by the action of simple sunlight and nothing more.

Over the past generation, people have heard more of the other side of exposure—the risk of damage to the skin. Those who work in sunlight develop leathery, lined faces. Rates of malignant melanoma have steadily increased. In 1974 there were 1,700 cases in Britain, 740 of them fatal. By 1990 that was up to 4,200, with 1,170 deaths; after another five years the annual total was 5,000 with 1,395 fatalities.

Our new fear of sunshine is denying us some of the benefits of exposure to the sun's rays. There is nothing new in this, of course, and a team at Bristol published a paper in last month's British Medical Journal that reminded readers of some of them. Vitamin D is made in the skin through the action of sunlight, and that can influence the incidence of heart attacks (there are at least 140,000 fatalities from heart attacks in Britain every year). It also prevents rickets—and, although the Bristol team didn't mention the fact—there are cases of rickets in British children of Asian families, caused by their being wrapped up and hidden from the sunshine.

Acne is eased by sunlight, and so is psoriasis. People say, 'Ah yes, that playwright Potter had psoriasis, didn't he? Skin like cornflakes. Poor bugger.' This disabling disease is not as rare as you might think: there are a million sufferers in Britain alone. The light from the sun is one of the most reliable forms of treatment. And then there's SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. Like most abbreviations, the acronym was dreamt up before anybody thought of the syndrome. It is caused by too little sunlight during the winter months. The effects of sunlight are apparently well documented as curing the resulting sense of gloom.

So we have sunlight claimed to help fight against heart attacks, skin diseases, rickets and depression. Not a bad score. Pointing this out is unoriginal, if timely. Yet the Bristol team were hounded from the moment their modest paper appeared. As long as sunlight is accepted as the villain of the piece, nobody is permitted to counterbalance the argument. I'd like to add that the rates of malignant melanoma have been going up during the very time that sales of sun protection cream have dramatically increased, and it may well be connected with some unsuspected aspect of modern life.

I don't doubt that too much sunlight is harmful, just as too little is certainly bad. But insisting that we simply scare the public with yet more threats of doom and despondency is irresponsible. It is unscientific, too, because we all know the deleterious effects of stress and worry. You'd go far to find a better example of dry rot.

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