According to scientists 10% of the world's reefs have been completely destroyed. For several years this has been attributed entirely to warming of the oceans which can cause corals to sicken and die. The most obvious sign that coral is sick is coral bleaching. That is when either the algae inside die, or the algae leave the coral. The algae are what give coral its color, so without the algae the coral has no color and the white of the limestone shell shines through the transparent coral bodies. The algae are the coral’s source of food.
Three weeks ago the, National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NOAA) researchers and their partners released a paper that detailing their discovery that a sunscreen chemical commonly used in many soaps, cosmetics, and body fragrances is highly toxic to corals. The team's data show that even very low concentrations of benzophenone-2, or BP-2, can quickly kill juvenile corals causing the coals to bleach. The team also found that BP-2 causes colorful corals to bleach, and can potentially induce or increase the frequency of mutation in corals by causing damage to their DNA.
In a study published last week in published by the Archives of Environmental Contamination and “Toxicology, Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands” another group of scientists looked at the Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3) which is used in the United States for sunscreens.
By sampling the ocean waters the researchers found that oxybenzone, commonly used in sunscreens in the United States (and Europe), is in relatively high concentrations in the waters around the more popular coral reefs in Hawaii, and the Caribbean. It is seemingly washing off divers and swimmers. The chemical not only kills the coral, it causes DNA damage in the adult coral and deforms the DNA in coral in the larval stage, making it unlikely they can develop properly. The highest concentrations of oxybenzone were found in reefs most popular with tourists.
Then in laboratory experiments, the team exposed coral larvae and adult corals to increasing concentrations of oxybenzone. They discovered that oxybenzone deforms coral larvae by trapping them in their own skeleton, making then unable to float with currents and disperse. The Oxybenzone was also found to caure coral bleaching, which is the major source of coral death world wide.
BP-2 and oxybenzone are additives in personal care products. BP-2 has been used since the 1960s to protect against the damaging effects of ultraviolet light. Oxybenzone or Benzopheone-3 is used in the United States for sunscreen. It is slathered on all our skin as recommended by dermatologists, government and beauty magazines. The ubiquitous use of sunscreen has been a much more successful campaign than recycling. The problems is the effects of BP-2 and oxybenzone on the earth. Neither chemical is removed from most municipal wastewater treatment facilities and it simply flows though the treatment train and out with the released water often directly released in coastal waters threatening near-shore life and is simply washed off of divers.
BP-2 is no longer approved for use in the United States for sunscreens, but it is used in many beauty products. Oxybenzone has replaced BP-2 in most sunscreens.According to the Environmental Working Group, “Oxybenzone is a sunscreen ingredient associated with photoallergic reactions. This chemical absorbs through the skin in significant amounts. It contaminates the bodies of 97% of Americans according to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”
The newest study was lead by Craig Downs, executive director and researcher at the non-profit scientific organization Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia. The scientists collected samples from reefs in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Eilat, Israel diving into the water themselves. They wore no personal hygiene products during the dives.
“The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” Downs said. “We have lost at least 80 % of the coral reefs in the Caribbean.” The scientists estimated that around 14,000 tons of sunscreen containing 1%-10% oxybenzone are washed into the Oceans each year.
As Dr. Downs pointed out “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.”