Building shade structures at secondary schools could play a major role in addressing young people's poor sun protection behaviours, according to Cancer Council Victoria.
A new study, published in the prestigious British Medical Journal, reveals for the first time that students will use - not avoid - shade if it is made available at their schools.
Potentially up to one third of students could be better protected from ultraviolet (UV) exposure over spring and summer months by a school installing shade. Shade-sail materials can reduce exposure to UV radiation by up to 94%.
Professor Melanie Wakefield of the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer (CBRC) said the study recognised the challenge of changing adolescent attitudes to sun protection.
"In Australia, with a high incidence of skin cancer and extensive public education over many years, the vast majority of adolescents have high levels of knowledge on the dangers of skin cancer."
"Adolescents are generally resistant to using adequate sun protective measures in their activities outdoors due to concerns about peer image and fashion and many are still actively seeking tans. Typically 24% are sunburnt on summer weekends. This is of significant concern given sunburn history is linked with increased melanoma risk."
"The rationale behind the shade study was that the natural protection offered by shade would reduce adolescents' exposure to UV radiation without compromising fashion styles and peer image, which may occur with use of protective clothing, hats and sunscreens. We also know that adolescents' who stay mainly under shade when outdoors on summer weekends were less likely to be sunburnt," Professor Wakefield said.
The Cancer Council study, which was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), assessed fifty-one Victorian secondary schools with limited available shade over two spring and summer terms with students outside at lunch time. Shade-sail structures were built at half of the schools for students to use during passive activities such as eating lunch.
"When compared to schools without shade, we found higher student use at study sites in the schools with the newly shaded areas. Furthermore, there was no evidence that the students avoided the newly shaded areas," Professor Wakefield said.
Further calculations based on the results of the study showed significant potential to reduce students' UV exposure, according to Professor Wakefield.
"Extending the data in this study to daily use during a typical spring and summer term, potentially up to one third of the student enrolment at these schools would have a reduced level of exposure to UV radiation by using the newly shaded areas."
"While more research is needed to identify the factors that will maximise students' use of shade sails, the results of this study suggest that by simply changing the environment around students it can change their behaviour," Professor Wakefield said.
SunSmart Program Manager Sue Heward said building shade is an effective, practical option for protecting students against UV radiation.
"Schools are an important setting for skin cancer prevention as adolescents are regularly outdoors during lunch times, when UV levels are high."
"In Australia, primary schools have embraced the establishment of sun protective environments and primary school-aged children have good sun protection behaviours. "However skin cancer prevention programs have experienced difficulties in engaging secondary schools in implementing strategies for students' sun protection.
"We believe there are a variety of factors at play with schools facing competing priorities and costs, as well as adolescents' resistance to hat wearing and other forms of sun protection."
"Secondary schools may have been unsure whether students would use shade if they built it - Cancer Council Victoria's study shows that schools can now have the confidence to build shade as part of their sun protection policies and help reduce students' risk of skin cancer.
"Further, the positive effects of building permanent shade at secondary schools may be sustained over months and years, with relatively small maintenance costs," Ms Heward said.
Cancer Council Victoria Director Professor David Hill said he welcomed the Federal Government's recent announcement of major funding for school infrastructure and maintenance projects, and hoped skin cancer prevention would be included in the mix.
"It presents an ideal opportunity for schools to undertake shade audits and build shade structures appropriate for their surroundings," Professor Hill said.
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