Are veils bad for your health?

London officials encourage Muslim women to spend time uncovered outside to prevent vitamin D deficiency.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

Published July 19, 2007 1:35PM (EDT)

At a conference Wednesday in Acton, London, a host of doctors warned that Muslim women who wear veils may be putting themselves at risk of serious illness, reports the Daily Mail. It turns out that by guarding their skin from public view, they're also blocking the sun's ultraviolet rays, which help produce vitamin D.

Now, London's Department of Heath is suggesting that Muslim women might want to spend more time outside and uncovered. "For ethnic groups there is an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency as people with dark and pigmented skin are less efficient at making vitamin D in their skin," said an unnamed Department of Health spokesperson. "They need to spend longer outside to make similar amounts and those who wear concealing clothing are unlikely to make enough."

The advice comes on the heels of a report released last month that studied 178 Middle Eastern women who veiled; it found that all but two were vitamin D deficient. Seeking some elucidation of these findings and the Health Department's prescription for sun exposure, I shot an e-mail to Dr. Edward Giovannucci, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard. He was nice enough to respond, despite being on vacation: "The more skin that is covered, the less vitamin D one will make. Other contributing factors could be darker skin [which has more melanin, which blocks vitamin D production by blocking the ultraviolet light], lower vitamin D intake, relatively low sunny days in [the] U.K. Thus, while veiling certainly contributes, many others also are at risk for low vitamin D."

In fact, the Health Department's recommendation is right in line with Giovannucci's assessment and isn't as politically minded as one might think. The department is also encouraging Muslim women to adopt a more vitamin-rich diet. And in response to studies showing Muslim children lack vitamin D, officials are encouraging pregnant women to take supplements.

So far, this doesn't seem a thinly veiled assault on the hijab but, rather, an attempt to raise awareness about the many ways Muslim women can increase their vitamin D intake -- including baring some skin. The department's spokesperson emphasized, "We are not interfering in a Muslim woman's right to wear the hijab, but we are stressing that we all need sunlight on our skins."

Tracy Clark-Flory

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