Friday, October 31, 2014

The Biological Risk of Ultraviolet Light From the Sun

In Section 14.9 (Blue and Ultraviolet Radiation) of the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, Russ Hobbie and I discuss the biological impact of ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Figure 14.28 in IPMB illustrates a remarkable fact about UV light: only a very narrow slice of the spectrum presents a risk for damaging our DNA. Why? For shorter wavelengths, the UV light incident upon the earth’s atmosphere is almost entirely absorbed by ozone and never reaches the earth’s surface. For longer wavelengths, the UV photons do not have enough energy to damage DNA. Only what is known as UVB radiation (wavelengths of 280-315 nm) poses a major risk.

This does not mean that other wavelengths of UV light are always harmless. If the source of UV radiation is, say, a tanning booth rather than the sun, then you are not protected by miles of ozone-containing atmosphere, and the amount of dangerous short-wavelength UV light depends on the details of the light source and the light’s ability to penetrate our body. Also, UVA radiation (315 – 400 nm) is not entirely harmless. UVA can penetrate into the dermis, and it can cause skin cancer by other mechanisms besides direct DNA damage, such as production of free radicals or suppression of the body’s immune system. Nevertheless, Fig. 14.28 shows that UVB light from the sun is particularly effective at harming our genes.

Russ and I obtained Fig. 14.28 from a book chapter by Sasha Madronich (The atmosphere and UV-B radiation at ground level. In: Environmental UV Photobiology, Plenum, New York, 1993). Madronich begins
“Ultraviolet (UV) radiation emanating from the sun travels unaltered until it enters the earth’s atmosphere. Here, absorption and scattering by various gases and particles modify the radiation profoundly, so that by the time it reaches the terrestrial and oceanic biospheres, the wavelengths which are most harmful to organisms have been largely filtered out. Human activities are now changing the composition of the atmosphere, raising serious concerns about how this will affect the wavelength distribution and quantity of ground-level UV radiation.”
Madronich wrote his article in the early 1990s, when scientists were concerned about the development of an “ozone hole” in the atmosphere over Antarctica. Laws limiting the release of chlorofluorocarbons, which catalyze the break down of ozone, have resulted in a slow improvement in the ozone situation. Yet, the risk of skin cancer continues to be quite sensitive to ozone concentration in the atmosphere.

Our exposure to ozone is also sensitive to the angle of the sun overhead. Figure 14.28 suggests that at noon in lower latitudes, when the sun is directly overhead, the ozone exposure is about three times greater than when the sun is at an angle of 45 degrees (here in Michigan, this would be late afternoon in June, or noon in September; we never make it to 45 degrees in December). The moral of this story: Beware of exposure to UV light when frolicking on the Copacabana beach at noon on a sunny day in January!

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