A few weekends ago, Matt and I rode up Mt. Coot-ha, the hill that stands over Brisbane, where all the television stations have their towers. The day was clear and less humid than usual, and the sun was hot. Even though I Slip-Slap-Slopped, as the public health message goes for getting people to apply sunscreen, I missed a strip, and ended up with a light sunburned swoosh after spending a few hours on a bike in the sun.
I was not too worried about it — I’ve already done extreme damage to my skin, and this tiny swath was not going to tip me over the edge into raging skin cancer. When I was a kid, I sunburned to the point that I could peel strips of skin off my back. I was on the swim team in high school and rarely put on sunscreen. I’m already screwed.
But if we actually lived here, I’d probably be even more screwed. I’m tanner than I’ve been in a few years, despite applying sunscreen assiduously and wearing long pants. In 2010, public health experts declared that Australia had the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. That got me to wondering: is it really sunnier here somehow?
Australia boasts a lot of sunshine, and while we’ve experienced the rainy season, the sky has been clear often enough. But it’s not necessarily just sun that is the culprit for skin damage; the rays of sunlight that are in the ultraviolet wavelengths do the worst damage to our skin. While UV rays are a normal component of sunlight, usually a big chunk gets blocked by the Earth’s ozone layer.
So, I got to thinking: Australia happens to be pretty far south, and close to the Antarctic, where the ozone layer has been attacked by human-made chemical compounds for decades — the CFCs from air conditioning and other molecules used for refrigerants, for example, have thinned out the layer by causing reactions to destroy ozone molecules (three oxygens connected together) in the lower atmosphere. Despite the Montreal Protocol’s success, the thinning ozone layer is still “mending” — and that means less protection from UV rays Down Under. Or so I thought. But the Australian government says the decrease in ozone at the mid-latitudes, where most of Australia’s cities lie, is only about 5%.
Most likely, habit has led to higher skin cancer rates: People who live in Australia like to go outside, to barbecue, to tramp in the outback, to swim at the beach. On clear days, the UV rays get through, and even when it’s raining or cloudy, the light here seems to be quite strong, particularly in summer when the sun is higher overhead. Along with public awareness also comes higher reporting rates. (I saw a headline go by recently reporting that the UK has a third more cases of skin cancer than Australia, though not as deadly. The World Health Organization seems not to engage in this kind of one-upsmanship.)
But people’s habits here are changing: On mornings when I have gone swimming in the West End public pool (50 meters, outdoors, $5 AUD, gorgeous!), long before 8 am and the sun’s full force, I have seen other people in the pool wearing UV-protective swim gear — basically, swimsuits that are t-shirts. Some of these folks are older women who probably did the same thing I did as a kid: sunburning as a child, sunbathing as a teen, not paying too much attention until the public health campaigns started here in earnest in the 1990s or so. Slip-Slap-Slop! Sunscreen, hats, protective clothing! (Though not so much on the clothing front, as evidenced by the short shorts and skirts that have been in fashion here this summer, but that’s another post.)
I too have changed my behavior: last week on Heron Island, I stayed inside working during the peak sunlight hours (you can check UV indexes here). We avoided swimming then too, going in the mornings or evenings. And even so, after a walk around the perimeter of the island, late one afternoon, Matt and I came back slightly pink. Strangely enough, the fish that live there on the reef also seem to get sunburned.
We are leaving Australia soon, at the end of this week, to make our way back home to Sweden and the long sunlit days of summer are fast approaching. I’ll have to revisit this topic in June, during midsommar up north. All I know is that after a few years’ residency in Stockholm, I have had only one sunburn: on my birthday last year, after a few hours on the water. (I might have to try harder.) The flipside of this story, once I’m back home, will be vitamin D exposure, which is related to depression. While people are not necessarily happier in Australia, I am happy to speculate that they might have lower rates of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.