Sunscreens Can Cause Damage to Reef Systems
A new study published this week 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.
It only takes one drop of that chemical, oxybenzone, to cause disaster.
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 use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Craig Downs of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory Virginia.
“We have lost at least 80 percent 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 percent oxybenzone.
The results of the study, which was conducted in the US Virgin Islands and Hawaii, come 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.
It should be noted that some retail outlets on Bonaire do sell only ecologically friendly sunscreens. When visiting Bonaire, be sure to only bring or purchase on island sunscreens that do not contain oxybenzone.
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Susan Davis has been living on Bonaire for over 25 years. She is a PADI Master Instructor, and an underwater and topside photographer. She also enjoys writing for The Bonaire Insider tourism news blog.