Saving Our Skin; Killing the World’s Coral

There is new evidence that a common ingredient in sunscreen poses an ecological threat to coral reefs, and may threaten their very existence.

Oxybenzone is found in suncreens because it acts as a light absorber and stabilizer. It is so common a chemical – and so widely used – that it shows up in measurable quantities in the wastewater discharges from municipal sewage outfalls and from coastal septic systems.

It also winds up in bays and oceans when swimmers who have used sunscreen enter the water.

Unfortunately, according to and Haereticus Lab, this ingredient that helps prevent sunburn and melanoma is toxic to coral.

It seems that when coral planulae (baby coral) are exposed to oxybenzone, the results include gross morphological deformities and damaged DNA.

Even worse, the chemical acts as an endocrine disruptor in baby coral, causing coral to encase itself in its own skeleton, leading to death.

The organizations – citing recent research – said that these harmful effects of oxybenzone in coral were observed in concentrations of as low as 62 parts per trillion.

This is 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 U.S. Virgin Islands, for example, 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,” the groups said, in a statement.

Researchers estimate that 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.

So, what is the solution?

Awareness about this harmful relationship could lead to a big reduction in the amount of oxybenzone getting into the water.

Officials in coastal areas could provide greater access to rinsing stations, which would allow bathers to wash their suncreens off before entering the water.

Oxybenzone could then be removed from wastewater before any discharge into ocean water.

Of course, these things require investments in infrastructure, and public education. But now that this threat is understood by scientists, perhaps these solutions will gain support among the public.

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