December 21, 2009 / 9:52 AM / 9 years ago

Antarctic researchers need solid sun block: study

CAPE DENISON, Antarctica (Reuters Life!) - Expeditioners to Antarctic train for freezing temperatures and social isolation, but a study has found there is something else to be wary of — sunburn.

David Vaughan, a leading glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey, looks out at the edge of the Sheldon glacier on the Antarctic Peninsula January 15, 2009. REUTERS/Stuart McDill

The recent joint study by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) and the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency found that more than 80 percent of researchers to the South Pole were potentially exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays in excess of the recommended limits.

Almost a third received more than five times these limits.

The study showed that in some cases the UV exposure levels in Australian Antarctic stations can reach an index level of 8 or more, making exposure levels there similar to what lifeguards in Australia’s sunny Queensland state potentially receive.

“It’s the first study that we have done to look at the personal doses of solar UV radiation of Australians working in Antarctica,” AAD Chief Medical Officer Jeff Ayton, co-author of the report, told Reuters.

Measurements were carried out during unloading of two vessels while they were at Australian Antarctic stations Casey, Davis and Mawson. Participants wore UV-sensitive badges on their chests for the duration of the working day, which ranged from five to 10 hours but could be as long as 14 hours.

Their face, hands and in some cases more of their limbs were uncovered and subjected to UV exposure.

“Despite sun protection being provided to the workers, a large portion of them reported feeling sunburnt,” Ayton said.

There is a large variation of UV radiation in Antarctica. In winter, when there’s very low levels, vitamin D deficiency is a real threat.

But in summer, the study found that the extended duration of sunlight, the hole in the ozone layer and the light’s reflection off the ice and water contributed to the high levels of UV radiation exposure.

This meant a higher risk of UV damage to the skin and the eyes, with long-term effects including potential skin cancers, Ayton said.

A team of 10 Australians from The Mawson’s Huts Foundation Expedition for 2009/10 is currently working in East Antarctica, conserving the base of the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14 organized and led by Sir Douglas Mawson.

While Mawson and his men would have had no knowledge of the damage of UV exposure during their time on the ice, 98 years later his conservation team are more prepared for the harsh conditions.

“The lesson I’ve learned here is to be half man, half suntan lotion, to avoid the painful lessons of ultra violet radiation and sunburn,” Dr. Peter Morse, who is currently working at Cape Denison in Antarctic, told Reuters.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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