Hi-tech Badges to Monitor Kids’ UV Exposure

This summer, with the help of some nifty badges, scientists will be figuring out just how much sun New Zealand school children absorb during their school day.

The badges are the brainchild of a New Zealand secondary school teacher, Martin Allen. Mr. Allen, who emigrated with his Kiwi wife to New Zealand from his native Britain, was surprised at just how strong the antipodean sun was — and for how long children are exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.

“We have lunch hour at half-twelve to half-one, right at the peak time of the day, and doing duty at that time as well, I found the sun really quite oppressive,” said Mr. Allen.

In 2003, he had the chance to do something about it when he was selected as a Royal Society of New Zealand teaching fellow, which enabled him to spend a year at the University of Canterbury. There he used his expertise in electronics to figure a way to measure the amount of exposure school children have to the UV radiation.

The resulting badge measures the sun’s radiation about 15 times a minute. The data stored on the badge can then be downloaded at the end of the day into a graph detailing the badge wearer’s exposure to the radiation. “You get a continuous graph of your UV exposure during the day,” says Mr. Allen.

Now the University of Otago and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) are planning to use Mr. Allen’s invention in research this summer.

From this October to the end of March next year, about 1,000 school children from regions throughout the country will be invited to wear an electronic badge that records their UV exposure, says Dr Tony Reeder, senior research fellow in the Department of Preventive and Social Medicine at the University of Otago’s School of Medicine.

“The children will record their activities in a diary for a week, and they’ll complete a questionnaire about their sun-related knowledge, attitudes and behaviors,” says Dr Reeder.

His doctoral student, Carabee Wright will be carrying out the research, visiting each of the selected schools for a week over the summer. The data gained should help the researchers give specific, rather than broad, guidelines for being safe in the sun.

“It may be more useful to know that when you are doing a certain activity, for example swimming, at a particular time in the day, there are some things that may be more useful to do than others,” she says. “It might be useful to put sunscreen on and avoid a certain time of day altogether.”

NIWA scientist Dr Greg Bodeker says the project will bring together physicists from NIWA and social scientists from the University of Otago to create a unique research team. “The team’s diverse make-up means strategies to change children’s behavior and social contexts will be informed by fundamental atmospheric science,” says Dr Bodeker.

For New Zealand’s Cancer Society, which is helping to fund the project, such research is vital in a country with one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world.

“You get the majority of UV exposure before you are 20,” explains Wendy Billingsley, a spokesperson for the society. “If you made a few key changes in their school environment, then the exposure those children get to UV could be enormously lowered.”

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