Why New England Is Such a Hotbed for Skin Cancer

Boston city councilor Matt O’Malley wants the city to add free sunscreen dispensers, like the one above in Miami Beach.
Boston city councilor Matt O’Malley wants the city to add free sunscreen dispensers, like the one above in Miami Beach. –Getty Images / Joe Raedle

Inspired by a Miami Beach program, Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley has filed a proposal to install free sunscreen dispensers at city parks and playgrounds, The Boston Globe reports.

It may seem odd for Boston to be an early adopter of a sun-blocking program from the Sunshine State, but there’s a very clear reason why O’Malley is hoping to do so.

Boston, and New England at large, have some of the highest rates of skin cancer in the country.

Yes, far worse than sunnier states in the South.

Data on melanoma incidents from the Center for Disease Control from 1999-2011 lays out what O’Malley is trying to deal with: Vermont has 29 skin cancer incidents per 100,000 people, the highest age-adjusted rate among all states. Massachusetts, at 21.6 melanoma incidents per 100,000, checks in at 12th-highest. In addition, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Maine all rank in the top quarter of states for skin cancer rates.

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Below is a chart of the skin cancer incidence rates for these states, compared to the U.S. average (adjusted for age and population).

And here’s a map of the U.S. showing incidence rates for skin cancer by state. The darker reds represent higher rates of skin cancer, while lighter yellows are for states with lower rates.

—CDC

You’ll notice that the darkest reds are most concentrated in New England and the Pacific Northwest, and not in the South.

Why? Because of two key determinants of skin cancer prevalence: Skin color and behavior.

Yes, blacks and Hispanics can still get skin cancer, but non-Hispanic whites have much higher rates of being diagnosed with skin cancer, according to the CDC. And according to Census data, Massachusetts is 83 percent white, Vermont is 95 percent white, New Hampshire is 94 percent white — you get the picture. As such, these states have much higher rates of skin cancer than, say, Hawaii, which is almost always sunny but is just 27 percent white.

The statistics are fairly clear: States with more white people have more skin cancer.

The other reason New England has such high rates of melanoma is related to behavior and the frequency of using sunscreen. New England is frequently cloudy, and clouds don’t fully block the sun’s harmful UV rays.

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Floridians understand that sunscreen is necessary. New Englanders, with our milder summers and more frigid winters, may be less concerned with sunscreen use.

Perhaps that’s why a higher percentage of residents in Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire reported getting a sunburn than the U.S. average, according to a 2004 CDC study.

O’Malley’s proposal for government-paid sunscreen comes from a personal place, he admits.

“Being a redhead who grew up in Boston in the ’80s when sunscreen wasn’t as well used, I suffered many, many burns as a kid,’’ O’Malley told the Globe. “So many Bostonians, particularly those who are fairer skinned, have had to deal with this.’’

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