TANNING salons in the North-East have placed unwitting sunbed users at increased risk of skin cancer by exposing them to UV levels more than three times the legal limit, an investigation has revealed.

Trading standards officials found more than 60 per cent of sunbeds they tested were being operated illegally; and in the worst cases UV emissions were more than three times the European limit – which experts say means sun-lovers were put at increased risk of potentially deadly skin cancer.

Durham County Council has warned salon owners that they could face legal action, a large fine and even prison if they fail to comply.

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But the Sunbed Association, which speaks for the industry, said salons would continue to flout the law until all councils crack down on all operators.

Durham County Council tested 229 sunbeds at 88 premises across the county – virtually all known operators – over several months and a staggering 140 were found to be outside the legal limit for irradiance, a measure of intensity of sunlight.

Fifty-eight businesses had sunbeds which failed the safety tests.

All have been ordered to remove their illegal equipment and install new lower emission replacements.

No deadlines were set, but officials have now begun visiting salons for a second time and, if no action has been taken, stand ready to seize sunbeds or launch criminal prosecutions, carrying a maximum penalty of a £20,000 fine or 12 months in prison.

Joanne Waller, the council’s head of environment, health and consumer protection, said: “The maximum level of UV radiation for sunbeds is the equivalent of being exposed to midday summer sun in the Mediterranean.

“Sunbeds that fail to meet British and European standards are putting users at even greater risk of skin cancer.

“We are working to ensure that all businesses comply with safety standards and will not hesitate to take legal action against any businesses that fail to make their sunbeds safe.”

The World Health Organisation classes sunbeds as being as dangerous to human health as cigarettes and skin cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the UK, causing more than 2,000 deaths every year.

Figures published earlier this year by Cancer Research UK showed skin cancer rates in the North-East have more than trebled in the past 20 years: about 15 in every 100,000 people in the region are diagnosed with malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, each year – about 450 people – compared to four per 100,000 in the early 1990s.

Experts blame the rise on increased sunbed use and a failure to take precautions in the sun.

A 2009 European regulation limited sunbeds to UV levels of 0.3 Watt per square metre.

Despite strong lobbying, the measure was left out of the Sunbeds (Regulation) Act 2010; but the UK signed up to the EU directive, meaning it has legal status.

However, industry insiders say salons are reluctant to convert their sunbeds for fear of losing trade, as customers using lower emission machines must spend longer in the booths.

A spokeswoman for the Sunbed Association, which represents 20 per cent of operators, welcomed Durham’s action but called for councils to be fair in how they apply the law across the industry.

The 2010 Act followed The Northern Echo’s Sunbed Safety campaign, launched in 2008 after 15-year-old Katie Turner, from Darlington, needed hospital treatment for burns after a 20-minute sunbed session.