Published On: Wed, Oct 21st, 2015

New scientific study finds coral reefs under attack from chemical in sunscreen

SunscreenA new study published on Tuesday in a toxicology journal has found that a chemical widely used in personal care products such as sunscreen poses an ecological threat to corals and coral reefs and threatens their existence.

Oxybenzone is found in over 3,500 sunscreen products worldwide, and pollutes coral reefs from swimmers wearing sunscreens and through wastewater discharges from municipal sewage outfalls and from coastal septic systems.

The study comes less than two weeks after NOAA declared the third ever global coral bleaching event and warned that locally produced threats to coral, such as pollution, stress the health of corals and decrease the likelihood that they will resist bleaching, or recover from it.

It demonstrates that exposure of coral planulae (baby coral) to oxybenzone, produces gross morphological deformities, damages their DNA, and, most alarmingly, acts as an endocrine disruptor. The latter causes the coral to encase itself in its own skeleton leading to death.

These effects were observed as low as 62 parts per trillion, the equivalent to a drop of water in six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools

Measurements of oxybenzone in seawater within coral reefs in Hawaii and the US Virgin Islands found concentrations ranging from 800 parts per trillion to 1.4 parts per million. This is over 12 times higher than the concentrations necessary to impact on coral.

A team of marine scientists from Virginia, Florida, Israel, the National Aquarium (US) and the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, undertook the study. Lead author Dr. Craig Downs of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory Virginia, said, "The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue. We have lost at least 80% of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers. Everyone wants to build coral nurseries for reef restoration, but this will achieve little if the factors that originally killed off the reef remain or intensify in the environment."

Between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion are emitted into coral reef areas each year, much of which contains between one and 10% oxybenzone.

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