Armed forces face higher skin cancer risk

5 August 2015

New research from Vanderbilt University has suggested the people serving in the armed forces are at a greater risk of contracting skin cancer, due to risk factors associated with their occupation and location.

The US military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years has led to military personnel spending more time exposed to strong sunlight, which has long been known to significantly increase the risk of contracting skin cancers such as melanomas.

The study involved looking at anonymised surveys from 212 veterans returning from tours of duty in the Middle East. The vast majority (87 per cent) said they only used sun protection some of the time, compared to 13 per cent who reported wearing it consistently.

Despite this, only 23 per cent had been warned about the risks of skin cancer by the US armed forces.

Lead researcher and Vanderbilt dermatologist Jennifer Power said: "Our study has identified factors that put veterans at risk for skin cancer, including melanoma, but we need to better understand the 'why' of sun protection in the field.

"There is a suggestion that there are times when the lack of availability was associated with lack of use. Understanding how to provide practical and effective sun protection to servicemen and women in warm climates is the next step.

"This study demonstrates room for improvement for skin cancer prevention and early detection in the military population, including possible screening of higher-risk personnel," she said.

There are a number of factors that make soldiers particularly susceptible to sun damage in this environment, including being closer to the equator than they are accustomed to, the desert environment of much of Iraq and Afghanistan providing little cloud cover, a lack of education on the dangers of sun exposure and long periods spent working in direct sunlight.

Overall, 77 per cent of the respondents said that they spent at least four hours working in direct sunlight every day, with 63 per cent experiencing at least one sunburn during their deployment.

To fully understand the sun damage situation in military settings, the researchers created a Sun Protection Availability Score. This took into account the accessibility of suncream, sunglasses, hats and structures that provided shade.

Unsurprisingly, a lower Sun Protection Availability Score was associated with higher levels of sun damage, as was spending more than six hours in the sun. It was also noted that in extreme situations, soldiers may be less likely to prioritise sun protection due to more pressing survival concerns.

However, the team acknowledged that most of the participants (80 per cent) were recalling events that took place over a year ago, so it is unclear how reliable the data is, or whether the situation has changed in more recent deployments. They suggested that repeating the study with a larger and more up-to-date sample group would be a good avenue for future investigation.
The potential for continued US involvement in the Middle East in the future means that this issue is likely to become a more pressing concern for members of the armed forces and their families.


Posted by Jeanette Royston


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