Sunscreen Is Killing Coral Reefs Around The World

First Posted: Oct 22, 2015 11:14 AM EDT

Sunscreen may protect against skin cancer and sunburn, but it is killing coral reefs across the world, according to a team of international scientists based out of the University of Central Florida.

The researchers found high concentrations of oxybenzone, a common UV-filtering compound, in the waters around popular coral reefs in Hawaii and the Caribbean. In addition to killing the coral, the chemical also damages the DNA in adults and deforms the DNA in corals that are in the larval stage, which reduces corals' chances of proper development, according to a news release.

"Coral reefs are the world's most productive marine ecosystems and support commercial and recreational fisheries and tourism," said John Fauth, co-author of the study, professor and diving enthusiast from the University of Central Florida. "In addition, reefs protect coastlines from storm surge. Worldwide, the total value of coral reefs is tremendous. And they are in danger."

The researchers found that highest concentrations of oxybenzone were found in reefs that are popular with tourists.

Craig Downs, executive director and researcher from Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia led the team of researchers.

"The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue. We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean," Downs said. "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. "

In a laboratory experiment, samples of coral larvae and cells of adult corals were exposed to concentrations of oxybenzone. The researchers found that oxybenzone deforms coral larvae by trapping them in their own skeleton, making them unable to float with currents and disperse. Oxybenzone also results in coral bleaching, which is a major cause of corals dying worldwide.

The researchers classified oxybenzone as a hazard to coral reef conservation.

"Wear rash guards or scuba wetsuits and skip all the hygienic products when you go diving," Fauth said. "If we could do it for a week at a time, people can certainly forgo it for a few hours to help protect these reefs for our children and their children to see."

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