Human Exposure to UV Radiation
It is largely exposure to UV-B that causes skin cancer. It is estimated that as many as 20% of adults will develop skin cancer over the course of their lifetime. Again, treatment is often successful if caught early. Despite very little UV-B reaching the Earth’s surface, there are substantial increases in skin-cancer rates in countries such as Australia, indicating how important it is that UV-B and UV-C continue to be absorbed by the upper atmosphere.
All UV radiation can damage collagen fibers, resulting in an acceleration of the aging process of skin and the formation of wrinkles. Because there is so little UV-B and UV-C reaching the Earth’s surface, sunburn is caused by large exposures, and skin cancer from repeated exposure. Some studies indicate a link between overexposure to the Sun when young and melanoma later in life.
The tanning response is a defense mechanism in which the body produces pigments to absorb future exposures in inert skin layers above living cells. Basically UV-B radiation excites DNA molecules, distorting the DNA helix, leading to mutations and the possible formation of cancerous cells.
Repeated exposure to UV-B may also lead to the formation of cataracts in the eyes—a cause of blindness among people living in the equatorial belt where medical treatment is limited. Cataracts, clouding in the eye’s lens and a loss of vision, are age related; 60% of those between the ages of 65 and 74 will develop cataracts. However, treatment is easy and successful, as one replaces the lens of the eye with a plastic lens. Prevention is important. Eye protection from UV is more effective with plastic sunglasses than those made of glass.
A major acute effect of extreme UV exposure is the suppression of the immune system, both locally and throughout the body.
Low-intensity ultraviolet is used to sterilize haircutting implements, implying that the energy associated with ultraviolet is deposited in a manner different from lower-frequency electromagnetic waves. (Actually this is true for all electromagnetic waves with frequencies greater than visible light.)
Flash photography is generally not allowed of precious artworks and colored prints because the UV radiation from the flash can cause photo-degradation in the artworks. Often artworks will have an extra-thick layer of glass in front of them, which is especially designed to absorb UV radiation.