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04 June 2019 | Story Valentino Ndaba | Photo Charl Devenish
Prof Cathryn Tonne
Air pollution not only costs lives, it costs money too. Pictured is Prof Cathryn Tonne presenting a guest lecture on air pollution at the Bloemfontein Campus.

Health effects associated with ambient air pollution (AAP) have been well documented. Subsequently, the relationship between pollution and financial outcomes have also become a focus for case studies globally. An Environmental Research journal article revealed that “low and middle-income countries are disproportionately affected by the global burden of adverse health effects caused by AAP”. 

A high price to pay

In 2012, high concentrations of air pollution caused 7.4% of all deaths, costing South Africa up to 6% of its Gross Domestic Product. According to the recent International Growth Centre study conducted by senior University of Cape Town researchers, this is a direct consequence of the country’s heavy dependence of fossil fuels, a source of health-damaging air pollution and greenhouse pollutants.

Stunted human and economic growth

These South African statistics are attested to by Prof Cathryn Tonne who recently presented a guest lecture on air pollution which was hosted by the University of the Free State (UFS) Business School.

“Air pollution can affect economic development through several pathways, and health is an important one. Air pollution is linked to shorter life expectancy, chronic disease, asthma exacerbation and many other health outcomes that result in absenteeism from work and school. These have large direct costs to the health system.” 

Prof Tonne says that air pollution exposure in children is linked to reduced cognitive development, with important impacts on human capital. As a result, children are not reaching their full potential in terms of neurodevelopment, which has an effect on their income prospects and the economy as a whole. 

Resolving a looming disaster

Technology may be employed to radically clean the air. Cities need to lead in the reduction of air pollution by promoting renewable energy, using active transport such as walking or cycling, and investing in infrastructure to make this safe and attractive. 

With researchers playing a major role in strengthening the case for aggressive air pollution control, the government needs to implement policies in order to control sources of air pollution. This global health and economic issue also requires individuals and communities to play their part to improve air quality.

News Archive

To tan or not to tan: a burning issue
2009-12-08

 Prof. Werner Sinclair

“Some evidence exists which implies that sunscreens could indeed be responsible for the dramatic rise in the incidence of melanoma over the past three decades, the period during which the use of sunscreens became very popular,” says Prof. Werner Sinclair, Head of the Department of Dermatology at the University of the Free State. His inaugural lecture was on the topic Sunscreens – Curse or Blessing?

Prof. Sinclair says the use of sunscreen preparations is widely advocated as a measure to prevent acute sunburn, chronic sun damage and resultant premature skin aging as well as skin malignancies, including malignant melanoma. There is inconclusive evidence to prove that these preparations do indeed achieve all of these claims. The question is whether these preparations are doing more harm than good?

He says the incidence of skin cancer is rising dramatically and these tumours are induced mostly by the ultra-violet rays.

Of the UV light that reaches the earth 90-95% belongs to the UVA fraction. UVC is normally filtered out by the ozone layer. UVB leads to sunburn while UVA leads to pigmentation (tanning). Because frequent sunburn was often associated with skin cancer, UVB was assumed, naively, to be the culprit, he says.

Exposure to sunlight induces a sense of well-being, increases the libido, reduces appetite and induces the synthesis of large amounts of vitamin D, an essential nutritional factor. The use of sunscreen creams reduces vitamin D levels and low levels of vitamin D have been associated with breast and colon cancer. Prof. Sinclair says the 17% increase in breast cancer from 1981 to 1991 parallels the vigorous use of sunscreens over the same period.

Among the risk factors for the development of tumours are a family history, tendency to freckle, more than three episodes of severe sunburn during childhood, and the use of artificial UV light tanning booths. He says it remains a question whether to tan or not. It was earlier believed that the main carcinogenic rays were UVB and that UVA merely induced a tan. The increase in UVA exposure could have severe consequences.

Prof. Sinclair says the UV light used in artificial tanning booths consists mainly of pure UVA which are highly dangerous rays. It has been estimated that six per cent of all melanoma deaths in the UK can be directly attributed to the use of artificial tanning lights. The use of an artificial tanning booth will double the melanoma risk of a person. “UVA is solely responsible for solar skin aging and it is ironical that tanning addicts, who want to look beautiful, are inflicting accelerated ageing in the process,” he says.

On the use of sunscreens he says it can prevent painful sunburn, but UVA-induced damage continues unnoticed. UVB blockers decrease vitamin D synthesis, which is a particular problem in the elderly. It also prevents the sunburn warning and therefore increases the UVA dosage that an individual receives. It creates a false sense of security which is the biggest problem associated with sunscreens.

Evidence obtained from the state of Queensland in Australia, where the heaviest and longest use of sunscreens occurred, boasted the highest incidence of melanoma in the world. A huge study in Norway has shown a 350% increase in melanoma for men and 440% for women. This paralleled the increase in the use of UVB blocking sunscreens while there was no change in the ozone layer. It did however, occur during that time when tanning became fashionable in Norway and there was an increase especially in artificial tanning.

Prof. Sinclair says: “We believe that sunscreen use does not directly lead to melanoma, but UVA exposure does. The Melanoma Epidemic is a reality. Sunscreen preparations are not the magical answer in the fight against melanoma and the irresponsible use of these preparations can worsen the problem.”

Media Release
Issued by: Mangaliso Radebe
Assistant Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2828
Cell: 078 460 3320
E-mail: radebemt.stg@ufs.ac.za
7 December 2009

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