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City councilor wants free sunscreen in Boston parks

A Miami Beach sunscreen dispenser.

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A Miami Beach sunscreen dispenser.

Imagine if Boston were a bit more like Miami Beach. Think less about Art Deco and more about a city with an innovative approach to what the US surgeon general described as a major public health problem.

In March, Miami Beach installed 50 sunscreen dispensers in parks, pools, and at lifeguard stations along its famed expanse of sand. The dispensers pump free sunscreen as part of a privately funded initiative to prevent skin cancer and raise awareness about the dangers of the sun.

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Matt O’Malley, a Boston city councilor, wants a touch of Miami Beach in all 220 of Boston’s parks and playgrounds. In a proposal filed for Wednesday’s City Council meeting, O’Malley calls for the city to consider installing sunscreen dispensers. It could potentially be paid for, O’Malley said, through a partnership with a sunscreen maker or an altruistic company seeking to raise awareness about the most common form of cancer.

“It’s a real public good that we can facilitate with little to no cost to the taxpayers,” O’Malley said Monday. “This is a way that Boston can really lead. It’s the most prevalent type of cancer. Most people know someone who has suffered from skin cancer or has had a scare.”

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Each year in the United States, doctors diagnose about 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Another 73,000 people are stricken with melanoma, a more dangerous type of skin cancer that is expected to kill nearly 10,000 this year.

“It’s something that is extremely preventable and treatable,” said Tom Flanagan of the American Cancer Society. “If it’s caught in the early stages and removed, the survival rate is very, very high.”

Free dispensers could provide protection for people who forgot or cannot afford sunscreen, which can cost more than $10 for six ounces. Many people do not use sunscreen properly. Adults should apply one ounce at a time and reapply sunscreen every few hours.

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Sunscreen stations could also provide information about what people can do to prevent skin cancer, which involves much more than a squirt of lotion. Parents and children should wear sun-protective clothing and limit exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest.

“Public education would be as important or more important than making free sunscreen available,” said Dr. Victor Allen Neel, director of dermatologic surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital and spokesman for the Skin Cancer Foundation. “I’m not sure exactly how efficacious it will be in preventing skin cancer by itself. I think it’s a great idea, though.”

Nationally, treatment for skin cancer costs $8.1 billion annually, according to the US surgeon general. Anyone can get skin cancer, although people with lighter skin are at higher risk. People with darker skin, however, are often not diagnosed until the cancer has advanced, making it difficult to treat.

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who survived a childhood bout with Burkitt’s lymphoma, seemed open to the idea but wanted more concrete details.

“As a cancer survivor, it’s important to me that the city is always looking at new ways to protect and improve the health of our children and families,” Walsh said in a statement.

O’Malley, whose proposal will be discussed at a public hearing, said the idea came from Adriane Levin, a medical student at Boston University who suggested dispensers on Boston Common. O’Malley and his staff found that sunscreen dispensers retail for up to $210, which means it would cost roughly $46,000 to buy one for each of Boston’s parks and playgrounds.

The devices would need to be installed and supplied with sunscreen. The city would also need to consider allergies, vandalism, and other impediments of urban life.

“Being a redhead who grew up in Boston in the ’80s when sunscreen wasn’t as well used, I suffered many, many burns as a kid,” O’Malley said. “So many Bostonians, particularly those who are fairer skinned, have had to deal with this.”

In Miami Beach, the 50 dispensers cost just over $20,000 and in busy areas, the devices are refilled weekly, according to Nannette Rodriguez, a city spokeswoman.

Mount Sinai Medical Center paid for the dispensers. The initiative is also sponsored by Destination Brands International, which licensed the rights to produce Miami Beach’s official sunscreen: MB Miami Beach SPF 30 Triple Action Sea Kelp lotion.

Could Boston have its own official sunscreen? Look out, baked beans.

Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.
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