Health Authorities Silent on Dangers of Sun's Rays
By Marcela Valente
The hole in the ozone layer reached record size over southern Argentina in September. But there were no special measures by the government to alert the population about the dangers of ultraviolet radiation.
BUENOS AIRES, (Tierramérica).- The thinning of the ozone layer over Antarctica and extending to the extreme southern regions of Latin America reached a new record last month, and revealed the passive attitude of Argentina's health authorities when it came to warning the citizens in most danger of being exposed to the Sun's harmful rays.
According to the Argentina Antarctic Institute, which measures the concentration of ozone gas in the stratosphere, the thinning of this barrier that protects living organisms on Earth from ultraviolet rays, reached a size of 28 million square kilometers in September over the South Pole -- eight percent larger than the maximum reached in September 2004.
The density of the ozone layer, which is considered deficient when it is less than 220 Dobson units, fell to 87 in mid-September. The lowest recording in 2004 was 95 units.
"Those are record readings for September," Jorge Araujo, director of the atmospheric sciences department at the Antarctic Institute, told Tierramérica.
As a result of climate factors, the thinning of the ozone layer over the South Pole is especially manifest during the Southern Hemisphere springtime, which begins in September.
The absence of the protective layer leaves terrestrial and marine life helpless against the most harmful solar radiation, which in humans can cause skin and eye diseases and damage the immune system. The populations of southern Argentina and Chile are the most exposed in Latin America because of their geographic location.
But Argentina's Ministry of Health does not appear to have taken any steps to prevent problems. Tierramérica tried unsuccessfully and through various channels to obtain informational materials about the dangers of exposure to the sun, which the ministry assures that it possesses.
Tatiana Petcheneschsky, with the ministry's directorate for health promotion and protection, apologized several times for the difficulty in accessing that material.
Pediatrician María Vaccaro, delegate from the Argentine Pediatric Society in the southern province of Tierra del Fuego, said in a conversation with Tierramérica that in her region there are only radio announcement to remind the population to protect themselves from the sun this time of year.
"Here in the spring the weather is still cold, and people are less exposed. But children are always the most vulnerable because they go outside to play, and because they were born in a world with an ozone hole, which didn't exist during the childhood of those of us who are now adults," said Vaccaro. The television alert will be broadcast in January, the warmest summer month, but when the ozone hole will have already begun to shrink.
In a poll conducted in Ushuaia, capital of Tierra del Fuego, 81.6 percent of those surveyed said they were aware of the phenomenon of the ozone hole. But when asked if they knew when the thinning of the ozone layer occurs, only 15 percent answered "in the spring".
The same study found that only 34 percent of the city's residents were aware of sunscreen lotions of different protective factors, recommended for application to skin exposed to the sun.
Among the skin ailments caused by too much exposure to the sun is erythema -- inflammation and reddening of the skin --, premature aging and cancer. Predisposition to these diseases is greater among people with lighter colored hair, skin and eyes.
And the exposure to the Sun's dangerous rays can cause cataracts.
In this country, bronzed skin continues to be seen as "a sign of good health, esthetic image and high social status," the president of the Argentina Association of Environmental Medicine, Alberto Tolcachier, said in a Tierramérica interview.
This mistaken perception is due in part to the fact that the correlation between greater exposure to the sun and its most serious effects is not immediately evident. It is usually many years before cataracts or skin cancer appear, said Tolcachier.
Furthermore, the composition of the population living in areas of Argentina most vulnerable to UV exposure is constantly changing, so few inhabitants are exposed to the radiation throughout their entire lives.
The greatest risk is at the Antarctic research bases and in Tierra del Fuego. In Antarctica, the population -- mostly military personnel and scientists -- is always in rotation, and in Tierra del Fuego, only 35 percent of the inhabitants were born there.
Despite these attenuating factors, Tolcachier warns that the ozone hole "constitutes a serious problem for public health. Given that exposure during the first five years of life produces the most damage, the risk is greatest among children."
The increased area of thinning of the ozone layer is surprising considering that the Montreal Protocol, ratified by more than 180 countries, has been in effect for 16 years. The treaty establishes timelines for eliminating the production and use of ozone-depleting substances, like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), halons and methyl bromide.
Although countries have made great strides in replacing these harmful products, they remain in the atmosphere for many years and continue to break down the three-oxygen ozone molecules high above the Earth.
* Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent.