On Oiled Beaches, A Double Threat of Skin Cancer

Facts matter: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter. Support our nonprofit reporting. Subscribe to our print magazine.

If this looks bad, try throwing in some crude oilIf this looks bad, try throwing in some crude oilIf you’re planning to hit the beach along the northern Gulf of Mexico, western Florida, or even much of the Eastern seaboard this summer, suntan lotion might not be enough to save you from an increased risk of skin cancer. Over the course of just a few hours on a sunny beach, crude oil can interact with UV rays on your body to cause a cancer risk similar to that of a strong sunburn. “It is going to cause a lot of oxidative damage to your skin cells,” says Jeff Short, a retired research chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who spent years studying the toxic effects of the Valdez oil spill. “And you probaby aren’t going to know it.”

While sunlight can damage your skin cells directly (giving you a nice tan), adding crude oil to your skin catalyzes a different kind of unhealthy chemical reaction. Compounds in crude known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) acquire energy from UV light and transfer it to oxygen molecules inside your skin cells, heating them up. “It literally burns your cells from the inside out,” says Short, who is now the Pacific science director for the environmental group Oceana. Chemists call the phenomenon “phyto-activated toxicity.” The result doesn’t look like a sunburn but can be equally damaging.

To date, studies of crude oil’s link to skin cancer have been limited to animals. “But based on those results,” Short says, “it’s something that humans should pay attention to.”

So how much crude on your skin is too much? Short says that if you don’t see oil in the water, it’s not going to cause significant sun damage to your skin. He’s more concerned about people whose bare hands and feet come into contact with balls of crude on sandy beaches. “It’s not that hard to get it all over you,” he says. “Believe me, I’ve done it many times.”

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

REAL QUICK, REAL URGENT

Minority rule, corruption, disinformation, attacks on those who dare tell the truth: There is a direct line from what's happening in Russia and Ukraine to what's happening here at home. And that's what MoJo's Monika Bauerlein writes about in "Their Fight Is Our Fight" to unpack the information war we find ourselves in and share a few examples to show why the power of independent, reader-supported journalism is such a threat to authoritarians.

Corrupt leaders the world over can (and will) try to shut down the truth, but when the truth has millions of people on its side, you can't keep it down for good. And there's no more powerful or urgent argument for your support of Mother Jones' journalism right now than that. We need to raise about $450,000 to hit our online fundraising budget in these next few months, so please read more from Monika and pitch in if you can.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate