Israeli Research Persuades Pacific Country to Save Coral From Sunscreen Pollution

November 5, 2018

3 min read

Adam received Divine instructions after he was created to take care of all the creatures on earth, in the sky and in the water and to master them – but in modern times, mankind hasn’t been doing a very good job.

As many as 60% of all species have gone extinct in the last half-century, and the pace of their disappearance is speeding up due to pollution, climate change, destruction of their natural habitats and overconsumption of animals as food. At least 10,000 different species out of the estimated 100 million different species on Earth go extinct each year. Even sunscreen products, whose regular use can help protect man from skin cancer, may harm the environment.

But now, a study conducted by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba has led to the world’s first ban of sunscreen products that have ingredients that harm the environment. They hypothesized that the visible “sheen” on the surface of the water produced from swimmers’ sunscreen lotions was somehow impacting coral reef health.

The law which takes effect in 2020, prohibits use of environmental pollutants that threaten juvenile stages of many wildlife species, including corals, fish and microalgae. The banned substances on the list include oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene and 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor and parabens. These are all sun protection factor (SPF) chemicals used in sunscreen lotions or fragrances that absorb ultraviolet light from the sun.

The four parabens, triclosan, and phenoxyethanol are antimicrobial preservatives used in sunscreens, shampoos, moisturizers, liquid soaps, and hair conditioners. Marine biologists and environmentalists, including the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, say the banned substances can reduce the resiliency of ecosystems to climate change factors and, by themselves, prevent the recovery of degrading wildlife and habitats.

The Republic of Palau – a tiny island country located in the western Pacific Ocean – has signed the Responsible Tourism Education Act of 2018 into law. The government reached this important decision, which – it is hoped – will be adopted by many other countries, based in part on research conducted by BGU Prof. Ariel Kushmaro and published three years in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology journal.

The country, just 466 square kilometers (180 square miles) in size, is made up of about 340 very small islands, shares ocean boundaries with the Philippines, Indonesia and the Federated States of Micronesia. One of the smallest countries in the world, Palau is a popular destination for scuba diving enthusiasts.

Originally settled about 3,000 years ago by migrants from the Philippines, the islands were first explored by Europeans in the 16th century and were made part of the Spanish East Indies in 1574. When Spain lost the Spanish–American War in 1898, the islands were sold to Imperial Germany. They were captured by the Imperial Japanese Navy during World War I and became part of the US-ruled Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands in 1947. It gained full sovereignty almost 25 years ago and has good relations with the U.S., which provides defense, funding and access to social services.

The Palau ban follows a similar move by the U.S. state of Hawaii in May 2018, effective in 2021, by the state legislature to ban the use of benzophenone-3 in an attempt to prevent coral bleaching. This situation causes corals to expel the algae living in their tissues and the coral to be bleached completely white.

Kushmaro and his colleagues explained in their article that benzophenone-3 is an ingredient in sunscreen lotions and personal-care products that protects against the damaging effects of ultraviolet light. Also called oxybenzone, the chemical “is an emerging contaminant of concern in marine environments, produced by swimmers and municipal, residential, and boat/ship wastewater discharges.”

The team examined the effects of oxybenzone on the larval form of the coral Stylophora pistillata, as well as its toxicity in the lab to coral cells from this and six other coral species. Its adverse effects are even made worse in the light. When exposed to oxybenzone, the living coral suffered an increasing rate of bleaching.

The resulting damage to coral reefs, including coral bleaching, in the South Pacific, Caribbean, Australia, Eilat and elsewhere poses a threat to one-quarter of marine species, threatens shorelines as well as vibrant tourism in affected areas.

Kushmaro, also the author of “Vibriosis,” a chapter on causative agents of coral disease published in the 2015 book Coral Disease, is a member of BGU’s Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren department of biotechnology engineering, the Ilse Katz Center for Meso and Nanoscale Science and Technology and the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev.

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