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LINCOLN — Jessica Guerrero's former college job provided what she considered the perfect perk of ultraviolet light.
She worked part time at an Omaha tanning salon in 2008 while attending nursing college. The job allowed her to continue indoor tanning, a practice the Minnesota native started when she was 16 to keep a summer complexion year-round.
Her later training as a nurse taught her to identify problem moles, so she was suspicious of one that appeared on her upper arm in 2011.
A few weeks later, she learned it was a melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer. Even worse, the cancer had already spread. She was 24 at the time.
Now, after completing a year of chemotherapy, Guerrero delivers a simple message to family, co-workers and friends, especially the ones who still have tanning salon memberships:
“It's better to be pale and healthy than tanned and sick.”
Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist agrees and says it's time Nebraska joined the growing list of states with a teen tanning ban. He plans to introduce legislation this week prohibiting commercial tanning salons from serving customers younger than 18.
Don't expect owners of Nebraska tanning beds to take the proposal lying down.
Barton Bonn of Omaha, owner of the Ashley Lynn's chain of salons in Nebraska and three other states, said a teen ban would affect a small percentage of his revenue. He's more concerned about his product being lumped in with others that are off-limits for kids.
“We aren't a liquor store, and we don't sell tobacco,” he said. “We sell sunlight. We sell UV light.”
State senators should prepare to be blinded by science.
On one side, doctors and public health agencies offer studies that show a strong correlation between indoor tanning and increased risk of deadly skin cancer, especially in young women. They say about 1 in 4 teens in the United States has used a tanning device, with nearly 12 percent using them often.
Dr. David Watts, an Omaha dermatologist and surgeon, said a 2012 analysis of multiple scientific studies found those who use tanning beds before age 35 have an 87 percent greater risk of developing malignant melanomas in their lifetimes. A study released a year earlier estimated that 75 percent of serious skin cancers in patients under 40 could be attributed to tanning bed use.
“The weight of that evidence strongly indicates to me UV light and tanning beds cause these skin cancers,” he said.
He also said the ultraviolet light from tanning beds is much more intense than the same type of rays emitted by the sun.
The tanning industry, meanwhile, says other scientists and even some prominent dermatologists challenge that view. They often cite the late Dr. Bernard Ackerman of New York, a pioneer in skin disease research, who voiced skepticism that sunlight even caused skin cancer.
Monica Parris, owner of Alternative Tan spas in Lincoln and Gretna, said indoor tanning is safe when practiced in moderation. Her employees instruct customers to never exceed the maximum time and frequency limits for a given bed, which can vary in the amounts of ultraviolet light they emit.
Most salons already require some variation of parental permission, she said. In her case, she requires the parent to come into the salon to sign a form.
“What's next?” Parris asked. “Are they going to ban swimming pools? Because a lot of kids get unsupervised sunlight exposure at pools.”
Nordquist said he has been swayed by members of the Nebraska Dermatology Society, who support a ban. He's convinced a less-restrictive bill to require parental permission for minors, which failed to advance to the legislative floor in 2008, would not do enough to protect the safety of young Nebraskans.
“The World Health Organization has classified these devices in the same category as cigarettes and arsenic for causing cancer,” Nordquist said.
Dr. Luke Nordquist, the senator's brother, is an Omaha doctor who specializes in treating cancers of the urologic system. He strongly supports preventing minors from using tanning beds.
“It's a no-brainer,” he said.
If Sen. Nordquist's effort succeeds, Nebraska would join a list of 13 states with some form of age-based ban on commercial tanning bed use. Nebraska and Iowa are among the 15 states with no restrictions on the businesses.
For Guerrero, much of the past year has been spent trying to restore her health.
Now 26 and a registered nurse in Omaha, she had surgery to remove the lymph nodes under her arm. Chemotherapy made her fatigued and achy for months on end. And every three months for the rest of her life, she will undergo exams for suspect moles.
Had she known about the risks of UV exposure, she likes to think she would have spent less time lakeside or in a tanning bed.
Now she has to live with the burden of not knowing.
“Your skin is like an elephant,” she said. “It never forgets what you do to it.”
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