Skin Cancer: Slow effect of climate change.

Late May 2021 I got diagnosed with skin cancer. As a science enthousiast I found myself with the question. "Can it be related to climate change?" The answer is Yes!


Early in 2020 my wife noticed a crater-like wound on my head that slightly looked infected. Not directly alarmed, because I'm all clumsy and might had ran into something without noticing. We threated the wound with some disinfecting gel and moved on. A year later we noticed the wound still was there, it didn't heal, slightly alarmed this time I made an appointment to my dermatologist to get the wound checked out. In May 2021 the verdict came: "Sir, what you have on your scalp is known is a Basal-cell carnicoma. Its a non-aggressive but harmfull tumor." 

Still recovering from surgery, I had the time to think and conduct some research on the matter. My young age and this diagnosis, could there be a link with a changing climate? 

Apparently there is !

A slow potential killer named skin cancer.

"Climate change refers to the global shift in weather patterns occurring over long periods of time. These changes encompass temperature, rainfall, wind speeds and cloud cover. Climate change has accelerated rapidly in the past half century and while international focus has concentrated on the environmental and economic consequences, the effects on human diseases such as skin cancer have been relatively under-represented. The association between ultraviolet (UV) exposure from the sun and the development of malignant skin disease has long been recognized but is still not completely understood. The relationship between climate change and UV exposure will be explored in an attempt to qualify the impact of climate change on skin cancer." (Bharath & Turner 2009)

The main cause of skin cancers are solar UV-Rays, those who cause sunburn directly called UV-B's that damage skin cell DNA directly and accumulate over time, and the longer wave UV-A rays that less directly damage skin cell DNA but can generate free radicals (ROS) that damage DNA. Overall, with a warmer climate people will be more outside, having more exposure to these rays, thus skin cancer will increase. However on equatorial regions climate will exceed temperatures where outdoor activities won't be possible. 

The importance of heat is also an argument, we think we only can get sunburns when we get exposed to the sun. However unlike what we think, animal models show a 5% increase of cancer inducing UV light for every degree. Thus, we can also get a sunburn on cloudy cooler days. 

Ozone, keep in mind we have 2 types of Ozone, the "good" stratospheric Ozone and the "bad" tropospheric Ozone. The good Ozone is our first defense against damaging UV-Rays, we make holes into that defense line by air pollution, CFCs to be exact. However we banned the use of CFCs 40 years ago, the current skin cancer pandemic is a result of those holes. 

Stratospheric Ozone has been recovering after we banned the substances that damaged it 40 years ago, however the Ozone hole is healing but won't fully recover until approximately 2060, which means damaging UV radiation will continue to pass trough and skin cancers will develop even decades after that.

Then we also have the "bad" ozone, the ozone in the air we breath an where our skin bathes in. This is relatively new and is caused directly by burning fossil fuels. This type of Ozone reacts with organic materials to create peroxides and other ROS that can damage skin membranes and nuclear DNA. The immediate effects of tropospheric Ozone is respiratory illness and asthma attacks, but in long term it will contribute and amplify the skin cancer pandemic, as this type of Ozone is already linked to eczema and skin ageing. 

Bottom line, skin cancers in Europe and North America will increase. My case can be directly linked to climate change given my age and my almost daily exposure to the outside. It's a wake up call, that climate change is not only about scorching hot temperatures and rising sea levels, but also our own health is at stake. We need to act on it, now!