The dangers of exposure to the sun and UV radiation are well known. Unfortunately, though, there still appears to be a major issue of awareness around the scale of the risk of developing melanoma. Children are particularly vulnerable to skin damage and this can be a significant problem at school where they are often outside for extended periods of time. For this reason, it is important to consider the use of shade – for example, from sun canopies and covered walkways – as well as other safety measures to reduce the risk of developing melanoma through sun exposure.
Figures released by Melanoma UK show that malignant melanoma is the fifth most commonly diagnosed cancer, with around 42 people being diagnosed every day, and it is the eleventh most common cause of cancer death in the UK. Around 2500 people die from malignant melanoma every year in the UK, which is equivalent to 7 people dying every day. Furthermore, about 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun. The situation can perhaps be put into perspective by comparing deaths from malignant melanoma to other common activities. For example, 40% more people die from malignant melanoma (7) every day than from road-traffic accidents (5).
Children are particularly at risk
Lots of great information about the specific sun exposure problems faced by children, particularly while they are at school, is available from Skcin, a charity trying to raise awareness of skin cancer. According to Skcin, children spend almost half their childhood at school, with approximately 8 hours per week spent outdoors. Much of this exposure to UV radiation is during the hottest months of the year and the hottest time of the day when UV penetration is at its strongest. Without adequate protection, a child’s delicate skin can burn within minutes, causing irreparable damage and significantly increasing their risk of developing skin cancer in later life. Nevertheless, it’s also worth noting that “Just because the skies aren’t blue doesn’t mean you can’t burn. Up to 90% of harmful UV rays get through on a cloudy day”, according to Melanoma UK.
Parents can obviously play an important role by ensuring that children either have applied sunscreen before going to school or are taking it with them to be used later. Lucy Dimbylow at The School Run advises: “Many parents use once-a-day sunscreens, but these don’t necessarily provide adequate protection. The best strategy is to teach your child to apply their own sunscreen, just as you’d teach them to wash their hands after using the toilet, and to give them a named bottle to take to school.” Also, buying and wearing appropriate clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat, can reduce sun damage.
Schools have a duty of care
The situation while at school is slightly unclear, though. Lucy Dimbylow notes: “Parents are often worried about their children being protected from the sun at school, and are unclear on legislation surrounding teachers applying sunscreen. The law states that school staff are allowed to apply sunscreen to children, but the National Union of Teachers (NUT) advises them not to, to avoid safeguarding issues.”
Nevertheless, Skcin believes that schools have a duty of care to ensure the health and safety of their pupils, which includes working with pupils and parents to not only ensure children have access to sun protection measures but also that they are actively educated every year on the importance of sun safety.
Marie Tudor, CEO at Skcin, told us: “Given that one blistering sunburn in childhood doubles a person’s chance of skin cancer later in life and that rates of skin cancer have risen by 45% in the past decade, we need to take action to combat these rising statistics. Our Sun Safe Schools programme provides everything a school or nursery needs to implement sun safety into their settings, in addition to the appropriate teachings for children.”
Using shade as well as sunscreen
Overall, it is generally considered impractical, unfortunately, for schools to consistently and effectively apply sunscreen to several hundred children, several times a day. It is sensible, therefore, to create enough shade for children to get their recommended 60 minutes of daily exercise out of the sun, either under natural shade such as trees or under artificial shade structures.
On the importance of using shade to offer protection, Marie Tudor at Skcin said: “A key element of the Sun Safe Schools programme is the provision of shade, which we ask schools to review in their settings. Suncream application is a challenge in some schools, so this makes the provision of shade even more relevant. Shade is also useful to make better use of an outdoor area to both teach and hold events and activities without the need for temporary structures of popup gazebos/tents. Many parents and schools view shade as a key factor and hence why many PTAs take the decision to fundraise to ensure such provision can be delivered.”
A major issue of awareness
In summary, it would appear that there is still a major issue of awareness around the scale of the risk from sun exposure, with children being particularly vulnerable. While as a society we are trying to introduce further controls to make our roads safer, for example, there is no legal duty for schools to provide shade to prevent skin damage due to sun exposure.
Nevertheless, the charity Skcin believes that schools do still have a responsibility to its pupils regarding protection from UV. On this, Marie Tudor at Skcin urges: “Please always consider shade when reviewing health and safety in your settings as this forms part of the school’s duty of care to keep children safe and protected.”
By using measures such as providing adequate shade at school and ensuring that sunscreen is applied by pupils, it will ensure that children are properly protected from the harm that comes from exposure to UV radiation. This is likely to have a beneficial health impact later in life for a significant number of these children.