Why pilots need skin and vision protection from UV radiation
On the ground, the we use sunglasses to protect our eyes from harmful ultraviolet (UV) light. To protect our skin, we apply lotions with zinc oxide (sunblock) to prevent skin cancers and burns. Fortunately, the most harmful radiation types are filtered by the atmosphere. Scientific reports show evidence that long term exposure to radiation from the sun can cause cancers such as melanoma or eye damage, however how does all this affect pilots flying at a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet (9144 metres)?
Solar Radiation and Skin Cancer
Skin cancer, or malignant melanoma, is primarily caused by the sun’s ultraviolet rays. When the ultraviolet light comes in contact with the skin, your body reacts with melanin, a natural pigment. Melanin causes the skin to darken slightly, resulting in a tan. Unfortunately, this defense system is not capable of protecting the skin indefinitely. Even darker skinned people are vulnerable to UV rays, despite having a stronger natural defenses against the sun.
When UV rays strike the skin, it can damage DNA within the body’s cells. To defend against ‘defective’ DNA, the body identifies and kills compromised cells so that undisturbed cells with the correct DNA can take its place. This process causes the skin to ‘burn.’ The body assists the healing process by delivering more blood to the surface of the skin. In prolonged and repetitive exposure to the UV rays, the body’s cells may begin to replicate damaged DNA. If this occurs, cancers can set in without notice.
Solar Radiation and Eye Damage
The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) released a report that warns pilots of the dangers of not wearing appropriate eye protection during flight. According to the report, “radiation from the sun can damage skin and eyes when exposure is excessive or too intense.” While the atmosphere protects us from UV rays on the ground, exposure to UV radiation increases by 5% for every 1000ft of altitude (FAA, p. 2). Exposure to the sun’s UVA and UVB wavelengths do not only cause sunburn, but also macular degeneration, cataracts, and other eye maladies (FAA, p. 2). The UVA spectrum radiation can cause DNA damage in cells and its role in melanoma is well known,” according to an article by Telegraph UK.
Prevalence of Skin Cancer in Pilots
According to a post written by Founder of the Melanoma UK, Gill Nuttall for The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA), “pilots are twice as likely to develop melanoma than the general population.”
This phenomenon is not only simply because pilots are visiting exotic locations or frequent sun beds, according to an article by The New Scientist. In addition to asserting that pilots are twice as likely to develop life-threatening melanoma, “plane windows only admit tiny amounts of UVB sunlight—the type of UV radiation usually blamed for causing skin cancer.” While this is fortunate, the article reports that the cockpit permits 54% of the sun’s less-studied UVA radiation. The New Scientist also reported that on average, “pilots and cabin crew who developed melanoma were 42% more likely to die compared with the general population.”
What are the current UV damage prevention methods?
BALPA suggests that pilots should protect themselves by using appropriate sunscreen at all times and to reapply regularly. They also recommend that pilots to check their entire body for skin abnormalities and speak to their doctors immediately if they have concerns. The FAA provides pilots with a very detailed guide to purchasing adequate eye protection.
What is the solution to eradicate UV-related health complications in flight crews?
Placing the onus on pilots and crew members by suggesting sunglasses and sunblock as a solution are inadequate solutions. While this solution may satisfy temporary goals, pilots need more reliable protection. The solution involves integrating a UV protective film on the entire cockpit windscreen to protect the wellbeing of aviators all over the world.
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