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Sunscreen is a threat to coral reef health, but size of threat unknown

Researchers say chemicals in sunscreen contribute to coral bleaching, but the health benefits of sunscreen to humans means scientists and regulators need a way to mitigate the negative effects of the chemicals on the environment. Photo by J. Roff
Researchers say chemicals in sunscreen contribute to coral bleaching, but the health benefits of sunscreen to humans means scientists and regulators need a way to mitigate the negative effects of the chemicals on the environment. Photo by J. Roff

March 31 (UPI) -- As skin cancer rates have increased, health officials have implored the public to lather on the sunscreen. Now, scientists are worried all those UV-filtering compounds are harming coral reefs.

Previously, lab experiments have shown oxybenzone, a UV-filtering chemical common in sunscreen, damages the DNA of adult coral and deforms the DNA of coral larvae.

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Studies have also shown UV-filters can harm fish embryos. However, much less is known about how sunscreen compounds and their derivatives affect coral reef ecosystems in the wild.

In a new paper, published Wednesday in the journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, researchers call for a more comprehensive assessment of sunscreen's threat to coral reefs -- habitat already made vulnerable by rising ocean temperature, pollution and overfishing.

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"Our research aimed to identify what research was out there and what gaps we had in our knowledge," co-author Brett Sallach said in a press release.

"Importantly we needed to understand what areas could be considered priority for future attention in order to understand the impacts of these products, and hopefully prevent any further damage to the environment," said Sallach, an environmental scientist at the University of York in Britain.

Due to the important human health benefits sunscreen provides, scientists said it is vital that policy makers and conservationists have a firm understanding of sunscreen's threat before making recommendations on their use.

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Authors of the new study recruited experts in biochemistry to highlight the biggest blindspots in the scientific literature. The experts agree that translating lab experiments to real world environments -- especially highly dynamic marine ecosystems -- remains a challenge.

For example, variable conditions in the environment can neutralize or amplify the threats posed by toxic compounds.

"We make four recommendations for priority research areas going forward, based on our consultation with experts," said lead author Yasmine Watkins, graduate researcher at York.

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"We need more work in the area of understanding UV-filter toxicity under different climate conditions, and long-term study into exposure and recovery of coral reefs," Watkins said.

"We also need to know realistic exposure to these compounds and how long they exist in the marine environment, to determine what the 'safe' limits are," she said.

Previous studies have shown that sunscreen-related toxins are found at higher concentrations around reefs near popular swimming beaches and diving locations.

Researchers said they aim to identify priority locations where scientists and regulators can focus on studying the problem and identifying solutions.

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