Dr Ramya Raghavan
Senior Consultant – Internal Medicine,
Columbia Asia Hospital Whitefield

Hole In The Ozone – Why Its Deterioration Has Serious Health Implications!

It has been almost 30 years since the Montreal Protocol was promulgated on September 16, 1987. Since 1995, this date is celebrated by the United Nations as the international day for the preservation of the ozone layer. The ozone layer is considered as the natural sunscreen, which protects human beings from harmful UV of the sun. It is a fragile layer of gas that offers a protective shield against cosmic radiation but is slowly being eroded due to the excessive production of hydrocarbons (substances which destroy ozone). Even the slightest depletion of this gas poses significant problems. Records show that ground-level UV radiation has grown by 10 percent especially in the mid and higher altitudes, since the past couple of decades. This has some serious implications on the environment as well as human health.

Effect of ozone depletion on human health

Ozone layer depletion has not only had a negative impact on the environment, affecting the quality of air and aquatic life as well as biochemical cycles but has also adversely affected human health. The sun’s UV rays can cause a number of life-threatening diseases such as cancer of the skin, genetic mutation, and damage to the eyes.

Effect of UV rays on eyes. Cataract today is one of the most common reasons for the onset of blindness in human beings. Studies have revealed that 1 percent decline in the ozone level can increase the risk of cataract by 0.3–0.6 percent. Oxidative agents are one of the major reasons for eye damage. UV rays produce oxidative oxygen that damages the lens and cornea of the eyes. Eye conditions like cataract, photokeratitis, and blindness are all a result of excessive exposure to the UV rays of the sun.

Effect of UV rays on the skin. The organ of the body that is greatly exposed to cosmic radiation is the skin. This is why, skin cancer is common in countries like Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Argentina where the ozone layer is at its thinnest, due to the Antarctic ozone hole. Skin cancer is of two types: melanoma and non-melanoma. The former is quite a fatal form of cancer while the latter is less fatal and can be treated. Non-melanoma is more common than melanoma. Melanoma generally occurs in individuals who are thin-skinned. Thus, children are more affected by this type of cancer than adults as their skin is thinner and more delicate. Moreover, the risk of developing melanoma is more during the summer months, because of the high intensity of UV rays entering the Earth’s atmosphere. Breast cancer and severe sunburns also occur because of exposure to UV radiation.

Ways to protect the ozone layer

  • Buy air conditioning and refrigeration equipment that do not use HCFC as a refrigerant
  • Conduct regular inspection of air conditioning and refrigeration appliances to prevent and minimize refrigerant leakage
  • Buy aerosol products that do not use HCFC and CFC as propellants

Effects of UV rays on human immunity

The immune system of the body is greatly affected by UV radiation. Excessive exposure to these harmful rays can result in immunosuppression, which brings down the defenses of the skin. Thus, it becomes more and more difficult for the body to fight skin cancers and other forms of allergic reactions.

Ways to protect yourself from UV rays

While efforts are being made by governments all over the world to restore the level of ozone in the atmosphere, at an individual level, you can take certain measures to reduce exposure to UV rays. First and foremost, during the hot summer months always cover yourself before stepping out. Wear sunscreen and sunglasses and preferably move out with an umbrella. The sun’s rays are their strongest between 10 am and 4 pm, you may avoid going out during this time if possible.

Excessive sun exposure, everyday stress, and smoking affect the level of antioxidant cells in the body. A number of fruits and vegetables are rich sources of antioxidants, which will offer you protection from UV radiation. As ozone depletion is a matter of great concern in many parts of the world, scientists in India too are carefully monitoring the levels of ozone in the country. Skin cancers and other diseases because of high exposure to UV rays are low in the country; further surveys are being done to establish the same.

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