Tanning beds now rated as top-tier cancer risk

Tanning beds are as deadly as mustard gas, arsenic, plutonium and other known carcinogens, international cancer experts have ruled. [via healthzone]

The International Agency for Research on Cancer yesterday moved UV tanning beds and ultraviolet radiation to its highest cancer risk category, removing any ambiguity about their threat by labelling them "carcinogenic to humans."

The move was based on a comprehensive review of studies, which found the risk of skin melanoma increases by 75 per cent when the use

of tanning devices starts before the age of 30.

The report, by the agency's Cancer Monograph Working Group, was published online yesterday in the medical journal Lancet Oncology. The agency is the cancer arm of the World Health Organization.

Until now, ultraviolet radiation and UV tanning equipment have been classified as "probably carcinogenic to humans." The new classification places them alongside other known cancer-causing agents, including asbestos, benzene and the human papillomavirus.

Cancer experts and advocacy groups welcomed the elevated classification.

"This is important ... it is another piece of evidence one can point to from a very conservative and eminent body," said Dr. David Hogg, a cancer physician at Princess Margaret Hospital. "It doesn't change my opinion, which is tanning beds are a dangerous carcinogen and should not be used at all.

"I'm seeing increasing numbers of young people who use tanning beds who come to my clinic with melanoma, particularly young women." A 2008 study by the U.S. National Cancer Institute found the annual incidence of melanoma among young women had risen by 50 per cent since 1980, an increase Canadian experts said was likely also happening north of the border. Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. In 2009, some 5,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with it and almost 1,000 will die.

In Ontario, the Canadian Cancer Society is calling for restrictions on the industry, including an all-out ban for patrons under the age of 18.

"Raising the classification of tanning devices to the highest cancer risk category further supports the message that there's no safe way to get a tan," said Irene Gallagher Jones, a senior manager at the society's Ontario Division.

According to the Cancer society, artificial tanning lights can emit rays five times stronger than the midday sun.

The cancer society is also advocating for mandated standards for staff who operate tanning beds, a government-run registry of tanning equipment use, and restrictions on advertising to youth, such as ads promoting pre-prom tanning. Last year, Ontario MPP Khalil Ramal introduced a private member's bill calling for a similar ban, which is before the standing committee on social policy.

New Brunswick, Scotland, France, Germany and at least five Australian states have banned anyone under 18 from accessing artificial tanning equipment. In the U.S., 29 states have restrictions on youths using tanning beds, with many requiring parental consent.

Steven Gilroy, executive director of the Joint Canadian Tanning Association, which represents 1,200 tanning salons across Canada, dismissed the international agency's report.

"When you dive into the research ... there is no increased risk," he said. The tanning industry has recently promoted the moderate use of artificial tanning as a way to boost vitamin D levels, which tanning proponents say may be associated with lower risk of some forms of cancer.

But Hogg disagrees with the industry claims: "As far as I'm concerned, tanning beds are like cigarettes and the claims by the tanning industry that they are healthy echo claims by the cigarette industry a generation ago and, in my mind, have just as much validity."

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