Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Harvard Researchers Connect Climate Change to Higher Skin Cancer Rates

Climate

HarvardScience

By Peter Reuell

[Editor's note: As we begin to enjoy warmer weather, we need to connect the dots between climate change and its impacts on human health, including skin cancer. The World Health Organization, provides detailed information on risks to humans from stratospheric ozone depletion and ultraviolet radiation.]

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

For decades, scientists have known that the effects of global climate change could have a devastating impact across the globe, but Harvard researchers say there is now evidence that it may also have a dramatic impact on public health.

In the July 27 issue of Science, a team of researchers led by James G. Anderson, the Philip S. Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry, warns that a recently discovered connection between climate change and depletion of the ozone layer over the U.S. could allow more damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation to reach the Earth’s surface, leading to increased incidence of skin cancer.

In the system described by Anderson and his team, water vapor injected into the stratosphere by powerful thunderstorms converts stable forms of chlorine and bromine into free radicals capable of transforming ozone molecules into oxygen. Recent studies have suggested that the number and intensity of such storms are linked to climate change.

“If you were to ask me where this fits into the spectrum of things I worry about, right now it’s at the top of the list,” Anderson said. “What this research does is connect, for the first time, climate change with ozone depletion, and ozone loss is directly tied to increases in skin cancer incidence, because more ultraviolet radiation is penetrating the atmosphere.”

How this process will evolve over time is a mystery, he said.

“We don’t know what the development of this has been—we don’t have measurements of this deep convective injection of water into the stratosphere that go back in time,” Anderson said.

“But the best guide for the evolution of this is to look at the research that connects climate change with severe storm intensity and frequency, and it’s clear that there is a developing scientific case that the addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere is increasing climate change, and in turn driving severe storm intensity and frequency.”

The link between ozone loss and increased incidence of skin cancer has been extensively studied, Anderson said.

“There has been a major effort by the medical community to define the relationship between decreases in ozone and the subsequent increases in skin cancer,” he said. “The answer is quite clear: If you multiply the fractional decrease in ozone protection by about three, you get the increase in skin cancer incidence. There are 1 million new skin cancer cases in the U.S. annually—it’s the most common form of cancer, and it’s one that’s increasing in spite of all the medical research devoted to it.”

But it isn’t only humans who have to worry about the effects of increased UV radiation.

Many crops, particularly staple crops grown for human consumption—including wheat, soybeans, and corn—could suffer damage to their DNA, Anderson said.

Ironically, Anderson said, the discovery that climate change might be driving ozone loss happened virtually by accident.

Although they had worked since the mid-1980s to investigate ozone depletion in the Arctic and Antarctic, by the early 2000s, Anderson’s team had turned its attention to climate studies, in particular the question of how convective clouds—updrafts that cause storms to build high into the sky—contribute to the creation of cirrus clouds.

“It was in the process of looking at that mechanism that we came to this unexpected observation: that the convective clouds in these storm systems over the U.S. are reaching far deeper into the stratosphere than we ever expected,” Anderson said.

Earlier tests performed in the Arctic had demonstrated that water vapor was a key component in creating the free-radical compounds that break down ozone, but the latest finding is much more troubling, Anderson said, because it suggests the process can happen at much higher temperatures than initially suspected.

“The bottom line is that if you increase the water vapor concentration, you actually increase the threshold temperature for executing this chemical conversion—from the stable forms of chlorine to the free-radical form,” Anderson said. “If the amount of water vapor and the temperature over the U.S. satisfies the conditions for rapid conversion of inorganic chlorine to this free-radical form, we’ve got a real problem, because the chemistry is identical to what we previously demonstrated is taking place over the Arctic.”

Also surprising, he added, was the realization that, to throw water vapor high into the atmosphere, storms needn’t be unusually large.

“In my mind, this is not just a broad public health issue,” Anderson said. “This is about actually being able to step out into the sunlight—it’s about your children and your children’s health. Of course, we don’t know how rapidly the frequency and intensity of these storms will increase, so we can’t place a time scale on this problem, but the core issue here is quite straightforward and simple, because we understand this chemistry.”

Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE and BIODIVERSITY pages for more related news on this topic.

——–

Click here to tell Congress to Expedite Renewable Energy.

 

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By Michael Svoboda

The enduring pandemic will make conventional forms of travel difficult if not impossible this summer. As a result, many will consider virtual alternatives for their vacations, including one of the oldest forms of virtual reality – books.

Read More Show Less
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Thursday accused NOAA of ignoring its own scientists' findings about the endangerment of the North Atlantic right whale. Lauren Packard / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Julia Conley

As the North Atlantic right whale was placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's list of critically endangered species Thursday, environmental protection groups accusing the U.S. government of bowing to fishing and fossil fuel industry pressure to downplay the threat and failing to enact common-sense restrictions to protect the animals.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Beth Ann Mayer

Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.

Read More Show Less
Much of Eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, remains an Indian reservation, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday. JustTulsa / CC BY 2.0

Much of Eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, remains an Indian reservation, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

Read More Show Less
The Firefly Watch project is among the options for aspiring citizen scientists to join. Mike Lewinski / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tiffany Means

Summer and fall are great seasons to enjoy the outdoors. But if you're already spending extra time outside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be out of ideas on how to make fresh-air activities feel special. Here are a few suggestions to keep both adults and children entertained and educated in the months ahead, many of which can be done from the comfort of one's home or backyard.

Read More Show Less
People sit at the bar of a restaurant in Austin, Texas, on June 26, 2020. Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars to be closed by noon on June 26 and for restaurants to be reduced to 50% occupancy. Coronavirus cases in Texas spiked after being one of the first states to begin reopening. SERGIO FLORES / AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus may linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces, spreading from one person to the next, the World Health Organization acknowledged on Thursday, as The New York Times reported. The announcement came just days after 239 scientists wrote a letter urging the WHO to consider that the novel coronavirus is lingering in indoor spaces and infecting people, as EcoWatch reported.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A never-before-documented frog species has been discovered in the Peruvian highlands and named Phrynopus remotum. Germán Chávez

By Angela Nicoletti

The eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in central Perú are among the most remote places in the world.

Read More Show Less