Pitkin County has highest melanoma rates in Colorado | AspenTimes.com

Pitkin County has highest melanoma rates in Colorado

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times
Louis Weiner from Minnesota plays soccer in the sun at Wagner Park Friday afternoon.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

Did you know...

Melanoma rates are:

-10 times higher among white people than African Americans

-50 percent higher in white men than white women

-increasing in young white women and white adults age 65 and older

Nearly half of white adults in Colorado had at least one sunburn in the past year

Approximately 1,260 Colorado residents were diagnosed with melanoma in 2009

*Information courtesy of the American Cancer Society and the Environmental Protection Agency

Lather on the sunscreen. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Pitkin County ranks among the top 1 percent of U.S. counties with the highest rates of melanoma.

The EPA also reported that Pitkin County is home to the highest melanoma rates in Colorado.

Melanoma — the most serious form of skin cancer, according to the Colorado Cancer Coalition — is responsible for 75 percent of all skin-cancer deaths.

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S., and in 2010, nearly 9,000 Americans died from melanoma alone.

The Colorado Health Institute estimated nearly 80,000 cases of melanoma nationwide last year, and Colorado mortality rates have been significantly higher than U.S. rates in recent years, according to the Colorado Cancer Coalition.

Barbara Walkosz, senior scientist at Golden-based health-communication research firm Klein Buendel, said the sun’s exposure at high altitude is to blame for high melanoma rates in the state, and especially in high elevation areas such as Pitkin County.

“The intensity of the sun increases as elevation increases,” Walkosz said. “It’s estimated that U.V. levels increase by about 56 percent for every 1,000 feet above sea level,” she said.

Walkosz, who has spent much time in Pitkin County working on a skin-cancer-prevention program, said Pitkin County locals are exposed to “even more intense U.V. rays” than residents of other Colorado counties, because of the elevation of the area.

Pitkin County is mostly above 8,000 feet and reports a melanoma rate of 32.2 for every 100,000 individuals, according to the Colorado Health Initiative.

Mountain counties with similar elevations, such as Gunnison, Garfield, Eagle and Chaffee, follow closely behind, with melanoma rates reported in more than 30 for every 100,000 people.

Counties below 6,000 feet, however, including much of Colorado’s Front Range, report fewer cases, the Institute said.

“It’s where you live and what you do,” Walkosz said.

City of Aspen senior environmental health specialist Janette Whitcomb attributes local residents’ active lifestyles to high melanoma rates in the area.

“Why do we live here?” Whitcomb said. “To hike, bike, run and ski. We want to be outside; our population is here to commune with nature.”

Whitcomb also addressed the many myths and misconceptions associated with sun care and skin protection as a likely causal factor.

One of these myths is that sunscreen causes cancer rather than prevents it.

Pitkin County resident Jhonatan Cruz, who has lived in Aspen for two years, said he usually never wears sunscreen for this reason.

“I think sunscreen causes cancer,” Cruz said, adding that he’s “probably worn it twice.”

Sun Safe Colorado recognizes this as one of the most common misconceptions about sun safety, but says there is no evidence to support that sunscreen increases any risk of developing skin cancer.

Another frequent misperception, Whitcomb pointed out, is that being tan is a good thing.

Local Dan Glick, who has lived in Aspen for 27 years, said he’s “always felt that if you’re not burning your skin, you’re not hurting your skin.”

This is another misconception Sun Safe Colorado says.

Debunking this myth, the organization explains: “The physical sign of a tan is the skin’s way of trying to protect itself from further skin damage.”

In an effort to combat some of this misinformation, the Aspen Environmental Health Department is focusing much of its attention to educating the community on sun protection and prevention.

The department welcomes the community to stop by its office, located on the second floor of Aspen City Hall, to check out their “sunscreen bar” and learn about more ways to protect one’s skin against the sun.