Trees could affect land use, reduce skin cancer

provided by Purdue University

Purdue University method to estimate the amount of protection trees provide against ultraviolet-B radiation may influence how communities are built and the incidence of skin cancer.

    “We now have a model to predict how much UV-B radiation people receive under different amounts of tree cover,” said meteorologist Richard Grant, Purdue agronomy professor. “If you're in what most people consider shade, you're still getting 40 percent to 60 percent of the UV-B exposure that would hit you in direct sunlight.”

    Experts consider UV-B to be the most damaging of earth atmosphere-penetrating solar radiation, which also includes UV-A. More than 1 million cases of skin cancer, either basal, squamous or melanoma, are expected to occur in the United States this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

    Grant and his research team reported their findings in the journa Photochemistry and Photobiology. The paper describes development and verification of a three-dimensional model that can predict how much UV-B radiation exposure exists under trees affording varying amounts of shade. The scientists then used the model to estimate how much exposure people received in residential suburban areas under cloud-free skies.

    “Our model takes into consideration the fraction of sky you can see through the tree canopy,” Grant said. They assessed a scenario to determine the effect of tree cover on children's daily UV-B exposure.

    Several factors influence the amount of UV-B exposure. These include altitude, latitude (distance from the equator), time of day and tree cover. The researchers used all of these elements in their calculations.

    At latitudes from 15 degrees to 60 degrees – or approximately from Hawaii to Juneau, Alaska – when 50 percent of the sky is visible through the trees, protection from the rays approximately doubles the time one can be in direct sunlight and get the same amount of sun. Grant said the protection from a 50 percent canopy isn't “much because some people sunburn in 20 minutes.”

    In other words, if a person is standing in the sunlight under a tree that provides 50 percent coverage, it will take about 50 minutes for them to burn instead of 20 minutes. However, that same person standing in the full shade under the same tree could be there for 100 minutes before they received too much ultraviolet radiation.

    But with 90 percent tree-canopy coverage, the ultraviolet protection factors are 10 times greater, giving the equivalent of a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 10 sun-block lotion.

    “Clearly, significant exposure of pedestrians is likely unless the tree cover has a nearly closed canopy. We have considered here only the UV-B exposure under clear skies resulting from the existing vegetation cover,” the researchers write, adding that even planting some trees in an open area provides protection against the rays.

    However, they write that the greatest benefits of tree cover in reducing UV radiation exposure is at high latitudes of 45-60 degrees, or in places at roughly the same distance from the equator as Detroit, Mich., and Juneau, Alaska.

    Residential and urban planners should consider the ultraviolet protection factors, Grant said. Many multifamily communities and office complexes, especially in urban areas, are lacking trees.

    “There are indications that the relative factors for protection of children from ultraviolet radiation differ in single-family verses multifamily developments,” he said.

    It's especially important to protect children from the rays because, according to the American Cancer Society, those who are severely sunburned when they are young have a significantly increased risk later in life of developing the most serious form of skin cancer, malignant melanoma. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report the incidence of melanomas has doubled in the United States in the past 20 years.

    But even with these warnings, it's a tall order to keep youngsters safe from those blisters since they spend much of their time outside wearing recreational clothing. For this reason, by the time individuals are 18 years old, they have received 50 percent of their lifetime exposure to the sun's radiation, according to the CDC.

    So, that tan may look terrific, but in fact it's the skin's response to ultraviolet radiation damage that later could become skin cancer, according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

    Those rays act like a microwave on your skin – the redness, swelling and blisters can keep developing for 12 to 24 hours after exposure, and injures not just your skin but the immune system cells located in it, according to the NIH. In other words, UV radiation is doubly dangerous because it can put you at higher risk for skin cancer and it also decreases you body's ability to fight disease.

    The US Forest Service Northern Global Change Research Program provided funding for the study.