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Sunlight; Leading Cause of Skin Cancer

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CEM REPORT, HEALTH | Growing up I heard of illnesses that were either considered a white man thing or exclusive to the rich and in some cases karma. Illnesses like cancer were considered to never hit the “poor” because they couldn’t afford the luxurious lifestyle that bred cancer.

While this may be true as many cancers have been linked to chemicals used in processed foods, it is interesting to note that these processed foods have become the “I cannot come and kill myself” food of the poor, hence exposing all to cancer risk.

Other than food and a luxurious lifestyle, cancer has also been discovered to be caused by the sun. A recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) details that working in the sun is a major cause of non-melanoma skin cancer worldwide.


“Unprotected exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation at work is a major cause of occupational skin cancer,” the report said.

The report, published in the journal Environment International, says that nearly 1 in 3 deaths from non-melanoma skin cancer is caused by occupational exposure to ultraviolet radiation from outdoor work. Further data from the report informs that 1.6 billion workers – nearly 30 per cent of all working-age people  were occupationally exposed to ultraviolet radiation (sunlight) in 2019. Males and young adults working in industries like agriculture, construction and fishing were listed as the most exposed.

Also, the report stated that almost 19,000 people in 183 countries died from non-melanoma skin cancer due to having worked outdoors in the sun. The majority, 65 per cent were male. The report also ranks occupational ultraviolet radiation exposure as the third largest occupational carcinogen, behind only asbestos and silica dust.


The report urges governments, employers and workers to take action to reduce the occupational risk of ultraviolet exposure, such as providing shade, hats, sunglasses, sunscreen and clothing that covers the skin.

Moreover, the report also calls for more awareness and education on the dangers of solar radiation and the benefits of prevention. WHO and ILO claim that these measures can save thousands of lives every year.

According to Gilbert Houngbo, ILO Director-General

“A safe and healthy working environment is a fundamental right at work.

“Death caused by unprotected exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation while working is largely preventable through cost-effective measures. Governments, employers, workers, and their representatives must work together in a framework of well-defined rights, responsibilities, and duties to reduce the occupational risk of UV exposure. This can save thousands of lives every year.”

Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General while noting that there are effective solutions to protect workers from the sun’s harmful rays, and prevent their deadly effects, called on governments to establish, implement, and enforce policies and regulations that protect outdoor workers from sun-induced skin cancer noting that skin cancer develops after years or even decades of exposure, workers must be protected from solar ultraviolet radiation at work from young working age onwards.

“Protective measures should be implemented when the ultraviolet index, a scale rating the amount of skin-damaging ultraviolet radiation, is 3 or higher.

“By providing shade, shifting working hours away from the solar noon, providing education and training, and equipping workers with sunscreen and personal protective clothing such as broad-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirts and long trousers.”

How it affect Nigerians 

The International Agency for Research on Cancer in another report puts Nigeria’s new cases at 124,815 in 2020, of which 54,266 (43.5%) were classified as other cancers. The most common cancers in Nigeria were listed to be breast, prostate, cervix uteri, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and colorectum. The report suggests that some of these cancers may be linked to occupational exposure to solar radiation, especially for workers who work outdoors without adequate protection.

The report squashes the idealogy that illness like cancer is only for the rich. It however exposes that skin cancer might become tending amongst the “poor” seeing that many average Nigerians do their business outdoors.

Non-melanoma skin cancer can affect any part of the body, but it is more common in areas that are exposed to the sun, such as the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders, arms and hands. Non-melanoma skin cancer usually appears as a change in the skin, such as a new growth, a sore that does not heal, a change in the size, shape or color of a mole, or a rough, scaly or crusted patch of skin.

Non-melanoma skin cancer can be prevented by avoiding or limiting exposure to UV radiation, especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when the sun is strongest. It is also important to wear protective clothing, such as hats, sunglasses and long sleeves, and to apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF).

While the leading cause of non-melanoma skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or artificial sources, other risk factors have been identified to include having fair skin, a history of sunburns, a weakened immune system, exposure to certain chemicals, and a family history of skin cancer.

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