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Common Sunscreen Chemical Kills Coral, Study Reveals

posted: 10/20/15
by: Danny Clemens
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A chemical commonly found in sunscreen is detrimental to coral health, a new report finds.

An international team of researchers linked oxybenzone, an organic compound used in more than 3,000 sunscreens, to "gross morphological deformities," DNA damage and endocrine disruption in already-vulnerable baby corals.

Oxybenzone can adversely impact coral health in concentrations as small as 62 parts per trillion -- the equivalent of one drop of water in more than six Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Coral winds
Andrea Cavallini/Getty Images

In Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands, however, oxybenzone has been measured in concentrations as high as 1.4 parts per million -- an unsurprising statistic considering that an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reefs each year.

Around the world, at least 10% of reefs are at a high risk of exposure to oxybenzone, study authors estimate.

According to the National Park Service, no sunscreen products have been designed reef-friendly. However, products containing the naturally occurring minerals titanium oxide and zinc oxide have not been found to harm corals. Furthermore, the agency says that sunscreens designed for individuals with sensitive skin generally contain "gentler compounds" than regular formulas.

Related: Spectacular Video Shows Coral on the Move

"The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue," said study lead author Craig Downs of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in a press release.

"We have lost at least 80% 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."

Marine scientists from several institutions, including Tel Aviv University, the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia, the National Aquarium, NOAA and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev contributed to the research, which is published in the October 20th issue of the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

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