The Mystery Epidemic

Author: Sylvia Kniest

Time: 1 class period
Make a transparency “Why has Skin Cancer Increased?”
Materials: Transparency and discussion questions written on the board or overhead.


Tanning and skin cancer were chosen for this project as these topics are a very important and relevant to teenagers today. However, any current health issue could be used as a model for this unit. Depending on the geographic location other environmental or health issues may be substituted. Other options could be:

Asthma (firefighters and inner city kids are current studies)
Water pollution (TCE and arsenic and how these chemicals adversely affect our health)

Students will be able to:
1. Identify some roles of government in dealing with the prevention and treatment of skin cancer.
2. List two reasons why the occurrence of skin cancer in youths has increased.

National Standards For Civics and Government
III. How does the government, established by the Constitution, embody the purposes, values, and principles of American Democracy?

A. How are power and responsibility distributed, shared, and limited in the government established by the United States Constitution?
B. How is the national government organized and what does it do?
C. How are state and local governments organized and what do they do?
D. What is the place of law in the American constitutional system?
E. How does the American political system provide for choice and opportunities for participation?

Teacher Background
This lesson may be used to introduce the role of government in dealing with health issues in the United States. Skin cancer and tanning is a topic that is very relevant and engaging to high school students.

Resource Websites
Statistics for the situations are from the following websites:



Tell students: You are going to try to identify a mystery illness that is afflicting the country. Listen to clues as I read the situation to you.

In 1995 there were 800,000 new cases of this ailment reported, which was up from 700,000 in 1993 and 400,000 in 1980. Medical experts predict that this year there will be 34,100 new cases --15,400 in women and 18,700 in men, with 7,200 deaths from this ailment. Doctors nationwide have been troubled by what they see as a growing incidence of this ailment among younger patients. The ailment now affects about 7 children per million, according to 2002 statistics. While that amounts to only about 500 children each year, the number has risen from 3 per million in 1982.

The incidence rate for this ailment has more than doubled since 1973 and it is projected that by 2010, one in 50 Americans will be afflicted. (Dallas Morning News, TX - Jul 3, 2005)

Ask students: What is the mystery ailment? (Have them brainstorm on the possible answers). After a few minutes have them discuss the prospective ailments, discussing the rationale for their answers.

After the students have identified that skin cancer or melanoma is the mystery ailment discuss the following:
Why do you think the rate of skin cancer is increasing? Have students share their rationale for their answers. Then share with students the following findings on an overhead transparency:


  • According to some estimates a sustained 10% global loss of ozone may lead to a 26% increase in the incidence of skin cancers among fair skinned people.
  • In 1930s America the chances of developing the more serious malignant melanoma was 1 in 1500. In 1991 it had soared to 1 in 150, and it is predicted to rise to as much as 1 in 75 early in the 21st century.
  • Long-term exposure to artificial sources of ultraviolet rays like tanning booths increases both men’s and women's risk of developing skin cancer

Ask students to work with a partner to complete the following task:
1. List individuals and agencies that will have an active role in dealing with the issue of skin cancer (be prepared to justify your list)
2. In what capacity might the federal government deal with skin cancer in the United States? (list specific actions government officials might take).
3. How might clinical trials be used to identify behaviors that increase the risk of developing this disease and to find ways to cure it?

Have students share their responses with the rest of the class. Conclude the class by telling students that during the next two weeks they will investigate the government’s role in promoting healthy behaviors of its citizens with the focus on skin cancer. Does the government have a “responsibility” to protect its citizens from disease?

Optional assignment for bonus points:
Have students visit a tanning booth business and find out the procedures for using the facility by minors. If possible bring a contract to class the following day for class discussion.

Embedded Assessment
The students can be assessed on their contributions during the class discussions.

PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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