ORLANDO, Fla., Oct. 20 (UPI) -- In recent decades, public health officials have pushed for increased sunscreen use in an effort to curb rising rates of skin cancer. But what's good for sunbathers and swimmers may be bad for coral.
Scientists at the University of Central Florida suggest a common UV-filtering compound found in sunscreen is killing coral, especially among reefs frequented by recreational divers and snorkelers.
Researchers tested for the compound oxybenzone in the waters around popular coral reefs in Hawaii and the Caribbean. They found higher concentrations near reefs most popular with tourists.
In lab experiments, scientists have found oxybenzone damages the DNA of adult coral and deforms the DNA of coral larvae -- the higher the concentrations of oxybenzone, the greater the genetic destruction.
Researchers found the compound traps coral larvae in their own skeletons, preventing them from dispersing and populating new parts of the ocean floor. The compound's presence also induced coral bleaching among adult coral -- the most common cause of coral death.
Earlier this year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared the third-ever global coral bleaching event. Studies suggest coral bleaching is set to become more common as the ocean continues to warm.
"Coral reefs are the world's most productive marine ecosystems and support commercial and recreational fisheries and tourism," professor and diving enthusiast John Fauth said in a press release. "In addition, reefs protect coastlines from storm surge. Worldwide, the total value of coral reefs is tremendous. And they are in danger."
In their new paper on the subject, scientists say conservationists need to consider measures to curb oxybenzone use near vulnerable coral populations.
"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.
"Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers," Downs 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."