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If a researcher would announce tomorrow that she’s discovered a cure for a harmful condition that afflicts 59% of the world’s population, the world would hail her as one of the greatest heroines of all time. The scientist would be even more heroic if her cure would free people from the dangers of some widely used consumer products that are a major cause of the harmful problem.

Because this condition contributes to health problems ranging from weak bones and an increased risk of everything from heart disease to diabetes and cancer, it’s hard to believe that a cure that’s safe, free, and fast acting really exists, but it does.

This sort of cure sounds like the hype from one of those infomercials on cable TV, but it’s actually true, and it’s literally waiting outside the door. Unfortunately for people in California and around the world, public health officials almost unanimously tell people to avoid this free and simple way to improve their health.

The condition that negatively affects 59% of the world’s population is a deficiency of Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin. The 59% figure comes from a study published in the March, 2010 issue of the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, and it means that almost 4 billion people around the world aren’t getting enough sunshine in their lives.

The reasons why are numerous. For people living in far northern and southern latitudes, sunshine is scarce in winter, and many people in these places suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression brought on by a lack of sunshine and Vitamin D.

For people in California and most of the United States, a major cause of Vitamin D deficiency is a fear of the sun, coupled with the use of sunscreen products. These lotions interfere with the body’s ability to make vitamin D, and many of them contain dangerous chemicals that can cause personal injuries and even wrongful deaths.

The action of sunlight on skin produces Vitamin D, but the message that people hear is that the sun is evil and that sunscreen lotions are absolutely necessary to protect against the terrible things that the sun will do to everyone.

Strong evidence of the widespread lack of Vitamin D comes from the Mayo Clinic, which reported that rickets is making a comeback. Webster’s dictionary defines rickets as “a childhood disease characterized by faulty ossification of bone from defective deposition and utilization of calcium and phosphorus due to inadequate sunlight or vitamin D.” The Mayo Clinic also offered evidence that children in the United States break significantly more bones today than 40 years ago: Girls 56% more; boys 32% more

Despite all the evidence of the benefits of sunshine, government agencies and the businesses that sell sunscreen products continue to portray the sun as a huge orange killer in the sky. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), for example, says nothing about the need for Vitamin D and only bad things about sunshine:

“Ultraviolet (UV) rays are an invisible form of radiation. They can penetrate your skin and damage your skin cells. Sunburns are a sign of skin damage. Suntans aren’t healthy, either. They appear after the sun’s rays have already killed some cells and damaged others. UV rays can cause skin damage during any season or at any temperature. They can also cause eye problems, wrinkles, skin spots, and skin cancer.”

In England, where the northern latitude makes the sun’s rays weaker and Vitamin D deficiencies more likely, government policy warns people to avoid almost all exposure to the sun and makes no acknowledgement of the need for the health benefits of sunlight.

In contrast to the British health agencies’ position, a report from England called Sunlight Robbery provided this fascinating observation on the benefits of sunshine. These findings are especially interesting because the popular thinking says that exposure to the sun is a major cause of skin cancer:

“Experts in vitamin D and health, both here and in the United States, have been unable to provide any epidemiological evidence suggesting that tanning is a direct risk for disease or even that it is a marker indicating a high risk of disease.

“The only relevant evidence that can be found suggests that tanning is associated with beneficial effects on health. A deep tan, particularly in childhood and the adolescent years, has actually been found to be associated with protection against melanoma, while sunburn in childhood is associated with a reduced risk of prostate cancer and multiple sclerosis later in life.”

So, if exposure to sunshine is so simple and beneficial, why do public health officials tell everyone to avoid it? The obvious answer is money. A release from the Household and Personal Products Industry (HAPPI) carried this lament:

Despite industry efforts to warn about the dangers of too much sun, just one American household in five (20.0%) uses sunscreens or sun blocks to help guard against cancer, according to Nielsen Homescan Consumer Facts data.

The release stated that sunscreen sales totaled $798 million in 2009, but it did not mention the personal injuries linked to many of the dangerous chemicals used in popular sunscreens. Oxybenzone, for example, sounds dangerous, and it’s been linked to allergies, hormone disruption and cell damage, as well as to low birth weight in baby girls whose mothers have been exposed during pregnancy.

And that $798 million figure is a paltry figure in comparison to the billions that pharmaceutical companies make from the dangerous drugs that they sell to treat all the illnesses that would be much less common if Vitamin D deficiencies would suddenly go away. Sunshine is free, so drug companies can’t sell it.

Vitamin D deficiency is avoidable, and no one needs to lie on a beach for hours every day to get enough sun exposure. Scientists at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research have actually devised a calculator that will let you know how much time you need in the sun. Here in San Jose, on a clear day in May, just 5 minutes in the sun will get you your daily allowance of Vitamin D. Even in December, you’ll need only 30 minutes.

Companies that sell sunscreens know that their products contain dangerous chemicals and that they’re contributing to Vitamin D deficiencies. If a chemical in a sunscreen, or in any skin care product, has harmed you, contact our product liability attorneys.

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Richard Alexander