Posted: April 3, 2013 at 10:54 pm
By Miriah Lee, Rachel Simpkins and Michael Carvelli
When Marissa Biller, 18 of Baker, West Virginia, received a phone call from her doctor telling her she had skin cancer, she was stunned.
Biller had started tanning at the age of 13 and tanned almost every week until she received her diagnosis. Like many teens, she had thought that bronze skin was more beautiful than her natural skin and had never considered the consequences of tanning until one day she noticed an unusual-looking mole. The doctor biopsied it and told her she had malignant melanoma.
“It’s the most horrible feeling in the world,” says Biller, who is now a student at Fairmont State University. “You know, you think your life could be over tomorrow.”
Biller is one of many people in West Virginia who have developed skin cancer as a result of indoor tanning. Tanning salons are very popular in the Mountain State, which doesn’t get a lot of sun in the winter, and there are currently no regulations limiting who can tan and how much (unlike other states, which ban teenagers from using indoor tanning and impose other restrictions). Indoor tanning is so popular here that many residents living in rural areas own their own tanning beds.
West Virginia has among the highest death rates from skin cancer in the nation. Statistics show that almost four in every 100,000 people die of skin cancer in West Virginia. By contrast, Pennsylvania has three deaths per every 100,000 people
Malignant melanoma is now the second most common form of skin cancer for individuals aged 15 to 29 years old and the most prevalent form of skin cancer for 25 to 29-year-olds nationwide. In West Virginia, the rate of people who develop skin cancer is 20 to 23 for every 100,000.
Studies show that indoor tanning has been linked to skin cancers including melanoma, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Indoor tanning exposes people to two forms of ultraviolet light: UV-A and UV-B rays. Most melanomas are caused by ultraviolet rays, which penetrate the skin cells and cause changes in the skin’s connective tissue. The federal Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization have declared UV radiation, from the sun and artificial sources like tanning beds, a known carcinogen.
Policymakers nationwide have begun to regulate the use of tanning beds for minors due to the higher risk of exposure to UV rays among this age group. Thirty-six states now regulate indoor tanning use by minors, according to Juliana Frederick, a grassroots leader for the American Cancer Society and a skin cancer survivor herself. In May 2011, California was the first state to ban teenagers altogether from using indoor tanning beds.
West Virginia officials have proposed legislation to regulate the tanning bed industry for the past two years; however, none of the bills has made it through the state legislature. According to the West Virginia Gazette, the Indoor Tanning Association, the trade association for the industry, has lobbied heavily against the proposed legislation, because tanning salons don’t want regulation to cut into their profits. Nationwide, the tanning industry took in an estimated $2.6 billion in 2010 alone.
The latest bill, introduced earlier this year, would require minors to have parental consent before they can use tanning beds. It also requires tanning salons to register with the local board of health and be subject to annual inspections. Patrons of tanning bed salons must show proof of age and would be required to sign a consent form indicating that they recognize the risk of skin cancer. The bill was passed by the Senate Health and Human Resources committee in March but has not come up for a full Senate or House vote yet.
Juliana Frederick hopes the proposed bill is passed. She wishes such regulation had been in effect when she was growing up. She tanned often throughout high school and college. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. Frederick’s cancer is now in remission cancer free but she worries that it could recur.
“We really feel like [this legislation] could prevent some people from dying,” she says.