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SUNSCREENS: Great For Protecting Our Health, But It’s Killing The Coral


TRUNK BAY, St. John — While sunscreen is proved to have positive effects on humans, it actually has massively damaging effects on coral reefs, researchers discovered in a recent study.

The study, released Tuesday, found that even a tiny amount of sunscreen — equivalent to a drop of water in a half dozen Olympic-size swimming pools — is all it takes to harm delicate coral reefs, the Washington Post reported.

Scientists at the University of Central Florida conducted the study in the Virgin Islands and Hawaii, discovering that a common UV-filtering compound found in sunscreen is killing coral, especially in areas frequented by recreational divers and snorkelers, United Press International reported.

The researchers found that the chemical, oxybenzone, can break down the DNA of coral reefs in three different ways, taking away its components and turning it white. The compound damages the DNA of adult coral and deforms the DNA of coral larvae, trapping the larvae into their own skeletons. Oxybenzone also induced coral bleaching, which is one of the most common causes of death for coral reefs.

Up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions are discharged into coral reefs, and a lot of it “contains between 1 and 10 percent oxybenzone,” the authors said, and at least 10 percent of coral reefs are estimated to be at risk of high exposure because of their proximity to popular tourism areas.

The study  was conducted in the Virgin Islands and Hawaii several years after a chance encounter between a group of researchers on Trunk Bay in St. John and a vendor waiting for the day’s invasion of tourists. Just wait to see what they’d leave behind, he told the scientists – “a long oil slick.” His comment sparked the idea for the research.

Not only did the study determine that a tiny amount of sunscreen is all it takes to begin damaging the delicate corals – the equivalent of a drop of water in a half-dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools – it documented three ways that the ingredient oxybenzone breaks the coral down, robbing it of life-giving nutrients and turning it ghostly white.

“The most direct evidence we have is from beaches with a large amount of people in the water,” said John Fauth, an associate professor of biology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, the Washington Post reported. “But another way is through the wastewater streams. People come inside and step into the shower. People forget it goes somewhere.”

Only a few weeks ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that the world is in the middle of a third global bleaching event and that pollution is damaging the health of coral. While over 3,500 sunscreen products worldwide contain oxybenzone, there are alternative options that do not include the compound, including a product called Badger Natural Sunscreen and many others that can be found here.

“We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean,” said Craig Downs, a researcher and director of the non-profit scientific organization Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, UPI reported.  “Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer or that a degraded area recovers,” he added. “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.” 

The study was published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. Fauth co-authored the study with Craig Downs of the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Clifford, Va., and Esti Kramarsky-Winter, a researcher in the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

Their findings follow a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study two weeks ago that said the world is in the midst of a third global coral bleaching event. It warned that pollution is undermining the health of coral, rendering it unable to resist bleaching or recover from the effects.

“The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” Downs said. “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.”

Coral reefs are more than just exotic displays of color on the sea bed. The National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the NOAA, placed their value for U.S. fisheries at $100 million. They spawn the fish that humans eat and protect miles of coast from storm surge.

“Local economies also receive billions of dollars from visitors to reefs through diving tours, recreational fishing trips, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses based near reef ecosystems,” NOAA said on its Web site. “Globally, coral reefs provide a net benefit of $9.6 billion each year from tourism and recreation revenues, and $5.7 billion per year from fisheries.”

Oxybenzone is mixed in more than 3,500 sunscreen products worldwide, including popular brands such as Coppertone, Baby Blanket Faces, L’Oreal Paris, Hawaiian Tropic and Banana Boat. Adverse effects on coral started on with concentrations as low as 62 parts per trillion. There are alternative sunscreens with no oxybenzone, including a product called Badger Natural Sunscreen and dozens of others on a list provided by the non-profit Environmental Working Group.

Measurements of oxybenzone in seawater within coral reefs in Hawaii and the Virgin Islands found concentrations ranging from 800 parts per trillion to 1.4 parts per million,” according to the authors. That’s 12 times the concentrations needed to harm coral.

“This study raises our awareness of a seldom-realized threat to the health of our reef life … chemicals in the sunscreen products visitors and residents wear are toxic to young corals,” said Pat Lindquist, executive director of the Napili Bay and Beach Foundation in Maui. “This knowledge is critical to us as we consider actions to mitigate threats or improve on current practices.” See a video from NOAA’s National Ocean Service, in which scientists explain the pressures on corals caused by climate change.

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The Author

John McCarthy

John McCarthy

John McCarthy is primarily known for his investigative reporting on the U.S. Virgin Islands. A series of reports beginning in the 1990's revealed that there was everything from coliform bacteria to Cryptosporidium in locally-bottled St. Croix drinking water, according to a then-unpublished University of the Virgin Islands sampling. Another report, following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, cited a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) confidential overview that said that over 40 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands public lives below the poverty line. The Virgin Islands Free Press is the only Caribbean news source to regularly incorporate the findings of U.S. Freedom of Information Act requests. John's articles have appeared in the BVI Beacon, St. Croix Avis, San Juan Star and Virgin Islands Daily News. He is the former news director of WSVI-TV Channel 8 on St. Croix.

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