The Hidden Killer of the High Places

Spending some time in the mountains this year? Then beware the hidden killer of the high places!

UV radiation at altitude image

Planning a climbing, hill-walking or skiing vacation this year? Maybe your home is up there where the air is rarefied? Whether you’re a visitor or a long term resident, you need to take precautions. That clear fresh air conceals a hidden, silent, deadly killer.
Even though it may feel cold in the mountains, you can sunburn very quickly—much more quickly, and more dangerously than on the beach. You may not even notice it at first. But by the time you feel a little pain it will be too late. You are already beginning to burn. In the short term this may ruin your vacation. In the long term it can be disastrous for your health.

UV or Not UV

The problem is that when you’re in the mountains, at a higher altitude, the sun’s ultraviolet rays (UV) can reach highly dangerous levels.
Exposure to ultraviolet light, especially UV-B light, is one of the key factors in the development of skin cancer. An estimated 1 million new cases of skin cancer will occur in the United States this year, and, at current rates, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime.
At higher altitudes, the thinner atmosphere provides much less protection from the UV rays, with UV intensity increasing by 10-12% for every 1000m of height. This means that your skin can burn more quickly on the slopes than at sea level!
Snow can make the danger even more acute. Snow reflects around 85% of the sun’s UV rays back up, so you may find yourself burning in places that are normally shaded from the sun and are consequently much more susceptible to burning. Particularly at risk are the underside of your chin and the bottom of your ears.
Up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays penetrate light clouds, so the danger is present even in cloudy weather.

Height Matters

A few years ago researchers from the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine measured UV light energy in three US locations: Vail, Colorado; Orlando, Florida, and New York City. The readings were taken at solar noon in direct sunlight on cloudless days.
“We found that the direct UV-B levels at 8,500 feet in Vail, Colorado, were approximately 60 percent higher than at sea level in New York,” said Darrell S. Rigel, MD, the lead author of the study. “In addition, the direct UV-B levels in Vail were the same as those in Orlando, which is nearly 775 miles closer to the equator.”
The intensity of the UV-B exposure suggests that a person having an average complexion, with unprotected skin, would burn after only six minutes of sun exposure on a clear day at noon in the high altitudes of Vail. Under the same conditions it would take 25 minutes for the same person to develop sunburn in New York and 14 minutes in Orlando.
So great is the danger of the increased exposure to UV-B caused by altitude that the expected annual non-melanoma skin cancer rate for year-round residents at 8,500 feet is estimated to be approximately 115 percent greater than those living at sea level at the same latitude. Melanoma rates can also be expected to be correspondingly higher at increasing altitudes.
“It is vital that those living or visiting these regions recognize the increase in UV exposure at higher altitudes and take extra precautions to prevent sunburn” said Dr. Rigel.

Staying Safe at Height

So just what precautions should you take? How can you protect yourself?
Well you could vow to stay at sea level and never go higher than you can ride an elevator, but that wouldn’t be any fun. And if you live in a high altitude community it won’t even be an option.
So here are some sensible practical proven sun protection tips to keep you safe in high places.

1. Check the UV forecast for where you are, or where you want to be. Most weather websites show the UV forecast for their area. A good site that covers the USA is https://www.epa.gov/sunsafety/uv-index-1, whilst in the UK www.metoffice.gov.uk/health/public/uvindex is an excellent choice. You should be able to find a forecast for anywhere in the world which will provide a simple guide as to what protection is needed for each UV level.
2. Try and avoid being in the sun for long periods.
3. Depending on the radiation level, you might want to avoid the sun altogether between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM.
4. Apply a good quality sun-cream, up to 30 SPF depending on the radiation level and your skin type. Put it on 30 mins before you go out, and reapply it regularly. Don’t forget your ears, scalp and nose and, in the snow, your neck and under your chin.
5. Remember that the sun will burn through some types of clothing, so you might want to put it on all over your body.
6. Best to wear loose fitting, tightly woven, light-weight clothing including long sleeves and long pants.
7. Apply a lip balm to protect your lips.
8. Wear a hat. Preferably one with a wide brim.
9. Wear sunglasses. A worldwide ISO standard of protection does not yet exist so always choose sunglasses that are labelled as blocking 99-100% of UV rays. Some manufacturers’ labels say “UV absorption up to 400nm.” This is the same thing as 100% UV absorption. Even if the UV risk is shown as low for that day you should still wear sunglasses on a sunny day at altitude. Besides, you know how cool they make you look. . .!

Short of locking yourself in a cellar for the rest of your life, it’s impossible to eliminate entirely the dangers of UV radiation, especially at altitude. However, if you use a little common sense and follow the tops above, you should be able to avoid most of the dangers of living the high life.


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