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Originally published Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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EPA sun-safety program targets skeptical Washingtonians

Washington state ranks fifth in the nation in the rate of melanoma, a deadly skin cancer, a fact some residents find hard to believe.

Seattle Times health reporter

Tell Washingtonians they're at risk of skin cancer, or warn that they should protect themselves from the sun's rays in the land of rain and clouds, and they're likely to fling moss at you.

"If we don't protect ourselves as well as people in, say, L.A., it's at least in part because we don't need to," wrote one irate reader, responding to such an article last year.

"Irresponsible fear-mongering," accused another.

That skeptical attitude is one reason the Environmental Protection Agency singled out Washington state for a program in sun-safety education, said Luke Hall-Jordan, an outreach and education specialist for its SunWise program, which Gov. Christine Gregoire is expected to endorse today.

Most people in Washington don't realize the state has the fifth-highest rate of melanoma, a deadly skin cancer, Hall-Jordan said. (Vermont has the highest.) And Washington has the seventh-highest for death from melanoma. (No. 1: Rhode Island.)

"It's understandable skepticism," he said, mentioning those unmentionable weather patterns we would like to forget. "It's one of the reasons we chose to do so much in Washington, because people don't realize it's as much of an issue as it is."

Melanoma is one of the five most common types of cancer in Washington state, said Kathryn Golub, program manager for the Washington State Cancer Registry at the state Department of Health. In 2005, the state reported 2,823 new cases and 170 deaths from the disease.

Melanoma rates are generally higher among white people; 82 percent of Washington residents reported white as their only race, compared with 75 percent nationally, according to the state cancer registry. But rates of melanoma among whites were higher in Washington state than among whites nationally, although rates of death were about the same.

The EPA's SunWise program, a sun-safety education program for schools and community organizations, offers a free tool kit to teach students and others to protect themselves from sunshine.

Hall-Jordan wasn't surprised by the onslaught of outrage and general disbelief about those statistics.

Some common misperceptions: It's those sunny Eastern Washington counties that have a problem, not the rain-soaked Western counties. It's those sun-damaged Californians who have moved here who are the problem. It's sunscreen that actually causes the cancer. And such anti-sunshine propaganda ignores the beneficial effects of vitamin D, created by sun exposure and now thought to be important in protecting against cancer.

First: Many Western Washington counties have a high incidence of melanoma, according to statistics kept by the Washington State Cancer Registry. In fact, the six counties with the highest rates are all on this side of the mountains: Island (with 88 cases per 100,000 population), Jefferson, San Juan, Clark, Whatcom and Kitsap.

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Californians? Might be a factor, but hard to sort out, said those who do the numbers. "It's impossible to track a mobile society with any certainty," Golub said.

Killer sunscreen, conspiracies and our desperate need for vitamin D?

Some argue that sunscreen is a doubly bad thing: It has chemicals that might hurt you, and it blocks out the sun, which creates vitamin D, now believed to be a key immune-system booster that can help ward off cancer, multiple sclerosis and other diseases.

Hall-Jordan doesn't play down the need for vitamin D or dismiss some findings that sunscreen might contain harmful chemicals. But he notes that sunscreen isn't the only way to protect yourself, and echoes scientists who say that about 10 minutes of sun a day on your arms and legs in the summer will give you plenty of vitamin D.

Too much sun, on the other hand, pushes the risk-benefit equation to the other side, he said. "Ultraviolet light is a known carcinogen," he said.

And so are Western Washington's clouds and rain, if you follow his reasoning.

"Folks that may not be accustomed to a fair amount of sun may be going out on a fair day and get a sunburn," he said, noting Washingtonians' penchant for outdoor activities. "The more sunburns you get, the more at risk you are of developing skin cancer."

He offers up a comic strip. Question: What's the best form of sunscreen? Answer: Move to Seattle.

That stereotype is partly why the EPA singled out Washington for a promotional campaign, the health educator said.

He's hoping those in other states will realize that if people in such a "rainy, dreary" place as Washington can get melanoma, anybody can.

"This is a building process."

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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