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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

The Mighty Sun

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 4/15/2024
Posted: 8/20/2007
Page Views: 6263
Topics: #Cancer #Arizona #SaltRiver #Health
The sun is far less dangerous than the sunblock we use to 'protect' ourselves from it.

We managed to go on our almost-weekly float down the Salt River again this Sunday, despite a very busy weekend for all of us. But Jennifer really enjoys it; Zachary likes to bring his friend Chris, and of course, I love it. Michael's been a bit under the weather and hasn't gone all summer; Karen is somewhat indifferent but decided to go. And even Mary, who's only gone with us once (last year), decided she would go, too.

And wound up getting one heck of a sunburn.

It's funny, because I was commenting to Jenny as we drove to the river, how well we all have managed to adapt to desert life. This is interesting to me because there's nothing in our immediate genetic heritage to suggest we could do anything of the sort. It's hard to imagine an environment more removed from that of Poland, England, France, Ireland and Germany than Arizona's. Those countries have rain, snow, cold, damp, long winters and heavy coats. Arizona has drought, all the snow piled up in the north, heat, desiccating dryness, no winters (in the Phoenix area) and shorts year round.

And yet we've all managed to adjust to 110° summer days (with July and August afternoons occasionally as high as 118°) and while, yes, we complain, it doesn't keep us from going outside to shop or go for the mail or even to walk the dogs. (We walk the dogs at night but, especially in August, it's usually still over 100° even then.)

The sun is the most amazing part of the day, here. While I've been to many places where you can feel the warmth of the sun on your skin (Florida, Texas, Mexico), I've also been to places where the sun beaming on exposed skin cannot compensate for a chilly breeze (New Hampshire, British Columbia, Iceland). But Arizona is unique. Even in the winter in Flagstaff, where it gets quite cold, should the sun hit your face you know it. And while any skier knows that it's possible to get a sunburn while on the slopes, on Flagstaff's Snow Bowl that sunburn can conceivably require hospitalization.

To float the river on our own (not using the tubing concession), requires two cars. Only one has to stay parked, however. The other could be driven by a non-floater who leaves after dropping passengers off at the put-in. Sunday, however, Michael was still asleep when we left (he's being staying up all night doing genealogy for…well…years) and since Mary had, at the last minute, decided to accompany us, we purchased two Tonto Passes, one for her car and one for mine. She transported all the other floaters but Jenny, and I took Jenny and all the floats, which Jenny and Karen had pre-inflated at home.

I had planned to use the low-SPF sun block I bought weeks ago. Last week I got a bit of a burn, since I hadn't been out for nearly a month. It doesn't bother me, but Michael hates it when I get a sunburn. He hasn't quite divested himself of the lie that sunburn causes skin cancer. (More on that topic shortly.) However, for some reason someone apparently removed the sun block from the car; because we could not find it anywhere. I supposed we could have taken forty minutes to run back home and find it and return; or twenty minutes to run to the nearest store, buy another tube, and return. But Jenny and Karen go to a tanning salon every week; I am brown now that last week's burn has healed; Zach and his friend Chris are dark from playing outside every day (Zach says he has a "base tan") and Mary's got such a naturally dark complexion the rest of us tend to forget she isn't tan.

But in fact, since she was injured on our cruise in May, she hasn't been outside much at all.

We put in at Blue Point, as usual; floated haughtily past the concession take-out, and continued on in relative isolation to Phon D. Sutton, our usual take-out. It's a leisurely float, taking about 2½ hours to complete. Along the way we sometimes see groups of wild horses drinking at the river's edge and a number of wild birds including egrets, herons and vultures in addition to smaller finches. On this trip we didn't see horses, but there were a couple of impressively-endowed women who had removed their bathing suit tops to the applause of a group of teenaged boys who clapped and blew a bull-horn in appreciation. Zachary and Chris didn't understand what the fuss was about; we assured them that they would in four years or so.

By the time we got to the concession exit, Mary was ready to leave the river. She had had all the relaxation she could stand. Of course, the car was five miles further downstream; floating there in the cool water was much more practical than hiking to the next parking lot in the days' heat.

Even with my butt in water (thanks to my mesh-bottomed pool-lounger float), it was hot. Every five or ten minutes I scooped water with my cap and splashed it on myself. Zachary offered to drench Mary, but she thought the water was too cold and so declined his generous offer (much to his disappointment).

When we finally did take out and were loading our stuff into the car, we could see Mary's legs were red; they didn't look very red. But at home she took a cool bath and put aloe-based lidocaine on her burn and said she was still was in too much pain to walk.

Now, sun block is not something I really recommend. And since to most people that is heresy, let me explain why.

A satellite view of Earth's ozone hole, September 11, 2003.

Since the 1970s, we've been told that the ozone layer, which protects the earth's surface from being sterilized by ultra-violet radiation from the sun, is being depleted by chlorofluorocarbons that used to be used as propellants in spray cans. The propellant molecules, once out of the can, floated upward into the upper atmosphere, where each one has the ability to prevent a molecule of ozone from forming from the action of the ultra-violet radiation on ordinary oxygen atoms. This information is not incorrect. However, told that way, people have developed the idea that the ozone layer all over the Earth no longer protects us from the Sun; and that is not true. Instead of growing thinner everywhere, a hole has developed over Antarctica, where there is little life for the increased ultra-violet to affect.

It's true that in the 1970s, no one anticipated this. Still, and with mind-boggling good fortune, that's what's turned out to happen. While sun-bathing at the South Pole would likely be disastrous, sunbathing in Arizona is not…at least, not because of excessive ultra-violet radiation.

The next piece of information should be puzzling for anyone who's been paying attention. Ever since the 1970s, we've been told that exposure to the sun causes skin cancer, and that we should use sun block whenever we go outside. Sales of sun block have skyrocketed every year since then. So, if the premise is true, skin cancer rates should have plummeted…but they have not. In fact, the more sun block that has been sold, results in (after a 20-year lag, which is the amount of time it takes for skin cancers to form after exposure to a carcinogen) a matching increase in skin cancer!

This is due to two facts. One, commercial sunblockcontains carcinogens. At least five, according to one count, which includes carcinogens in the scent, color, and other ingredients. Second, normal exposure to un-blocked sunlight causes vitamin D to form beneath the skin. That's right: our bodies are designed to make the vitamin D that is the number one cancer fighting agent in our arsenal. (Technically, this is vitamin D3, one of several known variants of this chemical.) Of course, that design was based on the assumption we would live outside, nude, in a moderate climate. Hence, the seemingly-impossible dilemma that we humans often develop a deficiency of a vitamin we make in our own bodies.

But why can't that deficiency be ameliorated by the addition of vitamin D to foods we eat or drink, like milk? Simply because synthetic vitamin D (actually vitamin D2) isn't the same thing. Is margarine the same as butter? Is nylon the same as silk? Is Britney Spears the same as Sophia Loren? No, no, and no; and synthetic vitamin D isn't the same as the real thing, either.

This isn't just my opinion. A 2002 study in the prestigious journal Cancer by Dr. William Grant came to the same conclusion…a conclusion that was immediately challenged by the same pharmaceutical firms that manufacture and sell sun block.

If we had to pay them for sunlight, I guarantee there'd have been no argument.

Now, all that said, I don't recommend sunburn. If, as nature intended, we were all constantly exposed to natural sunlight, we'd all have Malibu tans all the time. There'd be no skin cancer and no sun burns.

Which means it's really important to get enough of that natural sun all the time so that burning is never an issue. If you are currently a pale shell of the bronzed god or goddess you should be, start today and expose yourself to at least twenty minutes of the bright stuff. (Black people need a little more time in the sun than whites, since they require more sunlight to trigger vitamin D production.)

At stake is more than skin cancer, by the way. Dr. Grant found a correlation with lack of sunshine and other cancers including tumors of the bladder, uterus, esophagus, rectum, and stomach.

So, while I feel badly that Mary's burn has made her uncomfortable, I don't regret that I didn't encourage the formation of skin cancer by providing her with sunblock.

The best thing I can do for her, health-wise, is to take her out on a river float again next week. If I can convince her to go…