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Don't get Burned

Summer is the busiest time of the year for grounds care professionals. You work long days in the sweltering heat to get all of your jobs completed. Each task you and your crew perform has one thing in common: No matter if you are mowing a yard, installing a pond or applying chemicals, you are going to be under the harmful rays of the sun. That means you're at risk for skin cancer. What matters most is that you educate yourself and your crew about the disease, its warning signs and prevention strategies.


Skin cancer is not a new phenomenon, yet the reported number of diagnoses rises every year. It's the most common type of cancer in the United States. According to current estimates, 40 to 50 percent of Americans who live to the age of 65 will have skin cancer at least once. Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, accounts for about 4 percent of skin cancer cases, but causes about 79 percent of skin cancer deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 53,600 new melanomas will be diagnosed and about 7,400 people are expected to die of melanomas in the United States during 2002. These are alarming statistics that grounds care professionals should not take lightly, especially with all of the time they spend outside.

Skin cancers are divided into two general types: melanoma and non-melanoma. Non-melanoma (usually basal cell and squamous cell cancers) is the most common kind of skin cancer. It develops from skin cells other than melanocytes, which are the cells that produce the skin coloring known as melanin. It rarely spreads to other parts of the body.

Melanoma is a cancer that begins in the melanocytes and, because most of these cells still produce melanin, the tumors often look like brown or black moles. It is much less common than non-melanoma skin cancer, but it is much more serious. Melanoma, like non-melanoma skin cancer, is almost always curable in its early stages. However, melanoma is much more likely to spread to other parts of the body.


Because working in the sun all day is one of the job requirements for the grounds professional, there are certain risks that come with the job. But the risk of developing melanoma skin cancer also comes with warning signs, so you can catch the disease before it is too late.

Melanoma can be detected early. The American Cancer Society recommends that people between 20 and 40 years of age have a cancer-related checkup every 3 years, and every year for anyone 40 and older. A routine cancer-related checkup should include a skin examination by a health care professional qualified to diagnose skin cancer.

The cure rate for skin cancer could be 100 percent if all skin cancers were brought to a doctor's attention before they had a chance to spread. It is also important to check your own body once a month for any changes in moles, blemishes, freckles or any other marks. Any new, colored growths or any changes in moles already present should be reported to the doctor and looked at for possible removal.

Because moles may develop into melanoma or indicate an increased risk for skin cancer, it is important to know the difference between melanoma and a regular mole. A normal mole is usually an evenly colored brown, tan or black spot on the skin. It can be either flat or raised, round or oval. They are generally less than 6 mm (¼ inch) in diameter. A mole can be present at birth or appear later on in life and several moles can appear at the same time, especially on areas exposed to the sun.

Once a mole has developed, it will usually stay the same for many years. Almost all moles are harmless, but it is important to recognize changes in a mole that could lead to melanoma. The ABCD rule can help distinguish a normal mole from melanoma. Look for these signs each time you check yourself for mole abnormalities, and if you notice any of these changes make a visit with your doctor soon.

  • Asymmetry

    One half of the mole does not match the other half.

  • Border irregularity

    The edges of the mole are ragged or notched.

  • Color

    The color of the mole is not the same. There may be different shades of tan, brown or black, and sometimes patches of red, blue or white.

  • Diameter

    The mole is wider than 6 mm; although in recent years, doctors are finding more melanomas between 3 and 6 mm.


The most important ways to lower the risk of melanoma are to avoid being outdoors in intense sunlight too long (which, unfortunately is not an option for most people in the green industry) and to practice sun safety when you are outside. You can maintain your jobs and practice the following aspects of sun safety at the same time.

  • Seek shade

    The most effective way to limit exposure to UV rays is to avoid being outside in sunlight too long, especially when UV rays are most intense, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

  • Protect your skin with clothing

    You can protect most of your skin with clothing, including a shirt with long sleeves, a hat with a broad rim and sunglasses. Dark fabric and fabric with a tight weave generally provide the best sun protection because they have a higher SPF. To determine how much protection a piece of clothing gives, hold the material up to a window or a lamp and see how much light gets through.

    New “highly UV-protective” clothing is becoming available that often provides an SPF of 30 or higher and contains colorless compounds, fluorescent brighteners or specially treated resins that absorb UV rays. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, some emerging materials, such as resin-coated Japanese formulations, may increase this protection. Also, the University of New South Wales in Australia has developed a compound that instills pure close-knit cotton with an SPF of 100. A variety of everyday clothing also offers protection against the sun. Clothing made of unbleached cotton, for example, contain lignins, which are pigments that act as UV absorbers.

  • Use sunscreen

    Sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or more should be used on areas of the skin exposed to the sun. For best results, apply sunscreen liberally before you go outside and reapply every two hours. Many sunscreens wear off with sweating and must be reapplied for maximum effectiveness. Sunscreen should even be applied on hazy and cloudy days because UV rays can still come through.

  • Wear sunglasses

    Your skin is not the only body part that needs protection from the sun. Wrap-around sunglasses with 99 to 100 percent UV absorption provide the best protection for the eyes and the skin around the eyes.

  • Identify abnormal moles and have them removed if necessary

    Certain types of moles have an increased risk of developing into a melanoma. Depending on the appearance of these moles, your doctor may monitor them closely or may remove them if they appear to be changing into a melanoma. However, routine removal of moles is not generally recommended as a way to prevent skin cancer.

  • Learn more about skin cancer prevention

    New information about skin cancer appears every day. Many organizations conduct skin cancer prevention activities in schools and recreational areas. Others distribute informational brochures and public service announcements. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) sponsors free annual skin cancer screenings throughout the United States. Look for local information about these screenings or call the AAD for more information. For a list of national organizations, phone numbers and Web sites, see the Additional Resources text box on page C34.

You shouldn't have to worry about getting skin cancer while you are on the job. All you need to do is be smart about protecting yourself, check your skin regularly and if you notice a change that concerns you, see your doctor right away.


American Cancer Society

American Academy of Dermatology
1-847-330-0230, 1-888-462-DERM

Environmental Protection Agency

National Cancer Institute
www.nci.nih.gov or www.cancernet.nci.nih.gov

Skin Cancer Foundation


SPF, or sun protection factor, measures the length of time a product protects skin against reddening from UV rays, compared to how long the skin takes to redden without protection. For example, if it takes 20 minutes without protection to begin reddening, applying an SPF 15 sunscreen prevents reddening 15 times longer — about 5 hours.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends SPFs of at least 15, which block 93 percent of UV rays. While SPFs higher than 30 only block 4 percent more UV rays, they are suggested for sun-sensitive individuals, skin cancer patients and people at high risk for developing skin cancer.

However, sunscreen should not be used to gain extra time in the sun. Sunscreen will not prevent melanoma; it just reduces the amount of UV radiation exposure. Excessive sun exposure is unhealthy for anyone. Sunscreen should only be used to protect against normal sun exposure.

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