The ultraviolet radiation in sunlight is divided into three bands: UVA (320–400 nanometers), which can cause skin damage and may cause melanomatous skin cancer; UVB (280–320 nanometers), stronger radiation that increases in the summer and is a common cause of sunburn and most common skin cancer; and UVC (below 280 nanometers), the strongest and potentially most harmful form. Much UVB and most UVC radiation is absorbed by the ozone layer of the atmosphere before it can reach the earth's surface; the depletion of this layer is increasing the amount of ultraviolet radiation that can pass through it. The radiation that does pass through is largely absorbed by ordinary window glass or impurities in the air (e.g., water, dust, and smoke) or is screened by clothing.
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A small amount of sunlight is necessary for good health. Vitamin D is produced by the action of ultraviolet radiation on ergosterol, a substance present in the human skin and in some lower organisms (e.g., yeast), and treatment or prevention of rickets often includes exposure of the body to natural or artificial ultraviolet light. The radiation also kills germs; it is widely used to sterilize rooms, exposed body tissues, blood plasma, and vaccines.
Ultraviolet radiation can be detected by the fluorescence it induces in certain substances. It may also be detected by its photographic and ionizing effects. The long-wavelength, “soft” ultraviolet radiation, lying just outside the visible spectrum, is often referred to as black light; low intensity sources of this radiation are often used in mineral prospecting and in conjunction with bright-colored fluorescent pigments to produce unusual lighting effects.
See L. R. Koller,
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