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Study: Chemical In Sunscreen Is Killing Coral Reefs

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- A drop of the very thing that protects and prevents skin damage from the sun's harmful UV rays, can do irreversible harm to the Earth's precious coral reefs.

A new study found the sunscreen ingredient known as ozybenzone is damaging fragile coral reef systems. The chemical leaches the nutrients out of coral and bleaches it white. Coral bleaching is the main cause of coral mortality. The chemical also damages coral's DNA.

The study, was published in this month's Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

The researchers focused on the coral reef contamination in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Hawaii. According to the study, the most popular tourist spots have the highest concentration of oxybenzone.

Coral reef surfer in Kauai, Hawaii
Coral reef surfer in Kauai, Hawaii (photo by Susan Hazlett, USGS, Wikimedia Commons)

The study identifies oxybenzone as "an emerging contaminant of concern in marine environments—produced by swimmers and municipal, residential, and boat/ship wastewater discharges." The UV-filtering compound not only causes DNA damage in adult coral, it deforms the DNA in the larval stage.

In fact, oxybenzone is not just in sunscreen lotions. It is also found in nail polish, lotions, even lipstick. Previous studies have associated it with a rise in melanoma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 97% of Americans have oxybenzone in their bodies. The Food and Drug Administration warns products containing oxybenzone should not be used on small children under the age of 2.

There are reef-friendly sunscreens that do not contain oxybenzone. The National Park Service advises reef visitors to wear protective garments like hats and long-sleeved clothing and only use products with natural mineral ingredients like titanium oxide or zinc oxide that "have not been found harmful to corals." writer, producer Jan Mabry is also executive producer and host of The Bronze Report. She lives in Northern California. Follow her on Twitter @janmabr.


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