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Skin Cancer Is Dark Side to Lifeguards’ Sunny Image : Health: Amid growing concern over the disease, the county is offering a screening program this weekend to check beach sentinels for symptoms.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As good as they are at rescuing others, Los Angeles County lifeguards in recent years have been forced to seek protection for themselves.

Not from the crowds, the undertow or the churning ocean waters. But from the sun--the very thing that has been indelibly linked to the image of the bronzed California beach guardian.

So it is that lifeguards will turn for help this weekend in their fight against their job’s chief occupational hazard: skin cancer.

Because of growing concern over lifeguards’ susceptibility to the potentially life-threatening disease, the county Department of Beaches and Harbors will hold a special screening program this weekend to check county lifeguards for skin cancer.

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The program follows the death of a lifeguard from melanoma this summer and growing awareness among the beach sentinels that excessive exposure to sun is proving hazardous to their health.

“The days of the golden-tanned lifeguard are over,” said Dan Atkins, vice president of the Los Angeles County Lifeguard Assn., which represents 120 full- and 600 part-time lifeguards. “If we can get 400 of our lifeguards checked, we may end up saving a couple of lives. And that’s what it’s all about.”

Atkins, an 18-year veteran, recently had cancerous tissue removed from under his eye, a procedure that has been occurring with unsettling frequency among the workers who safeguard swimmers along the county’s coastline.

Although awareness of the hazards posed by constant exposure to sun has increased markedly in recent years, the death of lifeguard Patricia Brouwer in June heightened concerns over the skin cancer issue.

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Later that month, two county lifeguards lobbied for a bill sponsored by state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles) that would give lifeguards the same cancer benefits guaranteed under previous legislation to firefighters and law enforcement officers whose duties require them to provide aid or assistance in water areas at ocean beaches.

The bill, which has already passed the state Senate and is scheduled for a hearing next week in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, would force cities and counties to prove that cancer contracted by lifeguards was not caused by on-the-job exposure to ultraviolet rays or toxins in the ocean. The bill is being fought by insurance companies, cities and counties, which argue that it will needlessly increase government--and taxpayer--liability.

Department officials say there are no firm figures on the cancer rates among lifeguards. But they agree that Los Angeles County would be the place most likely to feel the effect of the legislation since it employs nearly 750 of the state’s estimated 3,000 full- and part-time ocean lifeguards.

The publicity generated by the issue prompted officials from the county Department of Beaches and Harbors to set up the skin cancer screening for its employees. Lifeguard Capt. Bob Buchanan said that although the department has had similar programs in the past, this weekend’s is the first in “at least a couple of years.”

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Four doctors will rotate among the lifeguard headquarters in Hermosa Beach, Santa Monica and Malibu on Saturday and Sunday to check department employees and provide education about skin cancer prevention, Buchanan said. If the program generates sufficient interest, the department will consider more frequent screenings, he said.

“On a big rescue day, when you’re out in water a lot, there’s just not much you can do,” Atkins said. “Lifeguards are different today in that they don’t just sit out on the beach and bake anymore because it looks good. Now we spend as much time in the towers as possible.

“You’re going to end up pretty tan no matter what you do if you’re a lifeguard. But now we’re constantly aware of the risks of being out there.”


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