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After decades of soaring rates of skin cancer - largely because of suntanning - Americans finally may be wising up to the dangers of the bronzed look, a medical researcher says.

Rates of malignant melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, appeared to start leveling off in 1988, after 27 years of steep rises, said Dr. Andrew Glass of Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research in Portland, Ore."It's going to take some more time to follow that along," Glass said in a telephone interview Thursday. But early figures from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md., appear to indicate a similar leveling off, he said.

Glass' remarks came after he reported on a long-term tracking of 300,000 members of the Kaiser Permanente prepaid health plan in the Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash., areas.

Researchers found that from 1960 to 1987, annual cases of a type of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma increased 2.6 times in men and 3.1 times in women.

Squamous cell carcinoma is one of the commonest skin cancers, occurring in thousands of people each year. Usually starting as a scaly patch on the lip, ear or hand, it grows, spreads and even causes death if untreated.

"Squamous cell skin cancer clearly seems to be related to skin exposure - it is more common among fair-skinned individuals, especially those with frequent or long-term exposure to sunlight," said a report by Glass and Dr. Robert N. Hoover of the National Cancer Institute.

The researchers also looked at melanoma, and found its incidence rose 3.5-fold and 4.6-fold among men and women, respectively, during the same 27-year period.

Greater exposure to sunlight is only one of many factors believed to have contributed to the increased rates of melanoma, the researchers said in their report in today's Journal of the American Medical Association.

But the occurrence of melanomas on the body's trunk rose much faster than cancers involving the head and neck or the extremities, the researchers said.

Malignant melanoma, which often starts in an existing mole that becomes enlarged, is the kind of cancer most likely to spread and kill.