Bleached, but Not by the Sun: Sunscreen Linked to Coral Damage

By Tibbetts, John | Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Bleached, but Not by the Sun: Sunscreen Linked to Coral Damage


Tibbetts, John, Environmental Health Perspectives


Warm, shallow, sun-drenched seas sparkling with brilliantly colored fish and coral species--we've all seen dazzling images of tropical reefs. Coral reefs are among the most biologically productive and diverse ecosystems in the world, providing food protein for half a billion people. But tropical reefs have begun dying from bleaching, with the frequency and spatial extent of such bleaching increasing dramatically over the past 20 years. Now a study finds that chemical compounds in sunscreen products can cause abrupt and complete bleaching of hard corals, even at extremely low concentrations [EHP 116:441-447; Danovaro et al.].

Zooxanthellae, symbiotic algae that live in healthy coral tissue, provide nutrients to corals through photosynthesis. The algae also help make the spectacular colors for which corals are known. The corals lose their color when zooxanthellae die or leave the reef; the protective skeletons of the corals are thus exposed, and the corals die. Rising sea-water temperatures, bacterial and viral diseases, ultraviolet light or other radiation, and pollution have been blamed for coral bleaching.

Scientists at the Polytechnic University of the Marche Region in Ancona, Italy, studied the effects of sunscreen exposure on samples from tropical reefs. The researchers collected branches of hard coral from sites in the Red Sea, the Caribbean Sea, the Indian Ocean off Thailand, and the Pacific Ocean near Indonesia. …

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