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BOOSTER SHOTS: Oddities, musings and news from the
health world

Skin cancer risk while driving in the car? Slather on the sunscreen

June 18, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey / For the Booster Shots blog
  • UV-linked cancers are more common on the left side of the body, specifically on the arm. This does not bode well for commuters in areas with heavy traffic.
UV-linked cancers are more common on the left side of the body, specifically… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

People bring sunscreen to the beach, but rarely to work. Yet a new study finds that in the U.S., some deadly skin cancers are more common on the left side of the body than the right, and the researchers think sitting driver-side is a factor.

For the car commuters out there, the result raises the question of whether simply driving to work is risky. This would seem to be the case.

Let’s take a current commute from a part of the country defined both by sun and by freeways that double as parking lots – say, Southern California. And let's say the commute takes 30 minutes to an hour.

If a typical June commute were at “solar noon,” the UV index would be about 11, according to the UV Index Forecast from the EPA’s Sunwise program. The UV index is a measure of how much ultraviolet radiation is hitting a particular location. The number 11 is considered “extremely high,” but the index – which starts at 1 – extends beyond that.

At that time of day, those most prone to burning could have skin damage in 10-20 minutes; damage for others may take 45 to 70 minutes, according to ModernSurvivalBlog, which includes a graph connecting UV Index numbers and skin damage.

Perhaps that’s the best way to consider sun exposure via commute — as a matter of modern survival — because the daily drive to work could prove problematic over time.

Of course, most commutes don’t start at solar noon — though they can occasionally stretch into it (depending on the number of collisions, the amount of construction and the appalling cluelessness of other motorists). For more normal exposure, check out UV-forecast.com; it provides a UV forecast for each hour, based on information from NOAA.

Keeping the windows up won't help much. Car windows might somewhat limit UV exposure, but  certainly not prevent it. As the American Cancer Society notes:

“Typical car, home, and office windows block most of the UVB rays but a smaller portion of UVA rays, so even if you don't feel you're getting burned your skin may still get some damage.”

In other words, even if you’re distracted by your inability to reach your exit and get to work on time, your skin could be taking a hit. 

Burns aren’t the only concern. Ultraviolet exposure accumulates throughout a person’s lifetime, and some people spend a lot of time next to a window behind a wheel.

Some people may even spend a lot of time next to a window on the other side of the car. But they’re rare.

healthkey@tribune.com

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