HOUSTON (CBS Houston) — A new study finds that U.S. military members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan returned home with a greater risk of developing skin cancer.

A study conducted by Vanderbilt University researchers reveals that many soldiers had limited access to sunscreen and little training about the dangers and risks of skin cancer.

The past decade of United States combat missions, including operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, have occurred at a more equatorial latitude than the mean center of the United States population, increasing the potential for ultraviolet irradiance and the development of skin cancer,” Dr. Jennifer Powers, the study’s lead author and dermatologist at Vanderbilt, told CBS News in a statement.

CBS News reports that researchers surveyed 212 anonymous veterans returning home who visited a clinic in Nashville, Tennessee. The study found that only 13 percent of vets reported using sunscreen while deployed, and 87 percent applied sunscreen “sometimes” or “sporadically.”

Sixty-three percent of vets reported getting at least one sunburn while overseas, while 20 percent said they got a blistering sunburn. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the risk of melanoma doubles if a person gets five or more sunburns at any point in their life.

Less than 25 percent of soldiers said they were told of the risks of sun exposure.

“When a soldier is first deployed to a foreign land, they’re oriented about all sorts of health risks,” Dr. Theodore Rosen, chief of dermatology service at Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Houston, told CBS News. “There are insects that they’re not familiar with. There are diseases that they haven’t been exposed to before. So I think this needs to be part of their orientation. These are areas with many hours of sunlight and if they’re going to be outside for their duties, it has to be stressed how important sun protection is.”

The study also found that those soldiers who were in the sun the greatest amount of time had the least access to sunscreen.

“My suspicion is that if this study was done nationwide, this would be more of a problem for those veterans from south of the Mason-Dixon line because of their history of sun exposure,” Rosen told CBS News.

Rosen added that more needs to be done to protect deployed troops from the sun.

“It raises red flags and tells us we need to look at this issue further in a more systematic, nationwide basis,” he explained to CBS News. “Even if some of the participants’ recollection is incorrect, enough of them said they weren’t aware of the risks. We need to make sure soldiers are educated properly about the risks of sun exposure and that they’re given the best tools possible to mitigate those risks just like we’re supposed to give them the best tools we can to mitigate injuries due to bullets and explosions.”


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