Southern Exposure -September 27, 2001
Take a bunch of fair skinned folks from the temperate latitudes, put them in the open tropical sun for a few years and you'd expect to get the dermatological equivalent of burnt toast, right? Not according to Ed Cantin, a fellow cruiser we met in Trinidad. Ed is one of the principal researchers conducting a sun exposure study of the Trinidad cruising community. He lives with his wife Jacque aboard their Tayana 42 sailboat, the "Lady J", at the Trinidad & Tobago Yacht Club. Ed practised dentistry in the States for 35 years before they cast off the docklines in 1996 to head south. After slogging down the "thorny path", they arrived in Trinidad a year later, fell in love with the place and haven't left since. He's been working part-time at the University of West Indies dental school since January 1998.
Ed collaborated with a couple of oral pathologists at the dental school in designing the skin study. They wanted to investigate the effects of the tropical sun on the skin and mouths of people unaccustomed to a lot of rays. Ed suggested they look at visiting cruisers. "We purposefully chose a study population that was at high risk from sun exposure. Cruisers from North America and Europe seem to fit the bill nicely."
Once a week, a van picks up a dozen volunteers from the marinas and boatyards in the Chaguaramas area of north-western Trinidad and takes them to the dental school located east of Port of Spain. When we heard about the study on the morning VHF radio net, we promptly signed up. We admit, though, our enthusiastic response was not entirely due to an altruistic desire to expand the frontiers of medical research. In addition to free transportation to the dental school, Ed offered all volunteers a free dental exam. Although in no immediate danger of losing our teeth to scurvy, we figured it was an offer we couldn't refuse. David was feeling just a little guilty about not flossing as often as he should.
At the modern university medical/dental complex, we were asked a number of lifestyle questions, including what measures we took to protect ourselves from the sun. An interning dentist checked our teeth. Finally, our facial skin and the mucosa inside our mouths was closely examined by an oral pathologist. Our mothers would have been proud - no cavities! We were also happy to learn that our skin appeared healthy.
When chatting with Ed at the yacht club bar a couple of days later, we learned that we were not exceptional. Somewhat to their surprise, the researchers have found little evidence of sun-related damage or lesions among the study volunteers. "So far, it would appear that cruisers generally are quite aware of the dangers posed by the sun and take the necessary precautions," Ed observed. The study is also investigating any links there may be between oral health and known carcinogenic contributors like smoking and drinking. Sailors seem to smoke less and drink more than the population in general. We looked at each other and ordered a couple of glasses of orange juice.
Cheers, David & Eileen