It’s easy to get lost in a sea of bad news, depressing statistics, and fear for the future, when it seems as though the damage and loss of our ocean is all that we hear about lately. However, after an ICRS press release on the effects of personal care products (PCPs) on our reefs, there may be some hope for the future of corals after all.
Coral reefs are effected by multiple stressors that are cumulative in their impact. Not only do these impacts effect the reef ecosystem, but the health and resilience of humans as well. One of the most deadly of these stressors was revealed to be pollutants coming from PCPs, including sunscreen, soap, lotion, shampoo, and many more. Particularly from the chemical oxybenzone, a common ingredient in sunscreen.
What is Oxybenzone and what does it do?
Oxybenzone is a known active ingredient in many sunscreens that acts as a chemical blocker, interfering with UV’s skin damaging abilities. When the chemical comes into contact with corals, the results can be fatal. Oxybenzone in combination with sunlight, causes DNA damage within corals, according to Craig Downs, executive director, Heretics Environmental Laboratory.
The chemical also reduces coral resilience to climate change, causing coral bleaching to happen at much lower temperatures. Corals typically begin to bleach around 30°C (86°F), but corals effected by PCP pollution were bleaching at 25°C (77°F). “The most horrifying aspect of the study though, wasn’t just the bleaching and the DNA damage,” said Downs, “what we discovered was oxybenzone is an endocrine disruptor.” This results in planulae (baby corals) encasing themselves in their own coral skeleton, effectively killing it.
What’s the solution?
Despite the disturbing reports on PCP pollution, there are relatively cheap and easy things that we can do to tackle this problem. “It’s not like climate change where it’s really really tough, people can make personal choices. Industries, the resorts and dive boat operators, they can come together and it wouldn’t cost much of anything to partner with the Hawaii Tourism Association to start spreading the word.” said Downs.
The Marine Safe Program, which was established by the International Program for the State of the Ocean (IPSO) is working with scientists to establish a Marine Safe Certification Program where companies can submit their products to be tested for proof that they do not contain any chemicals that harm the ocean.
In return, these products will carry the Marine Safe logo, making it easier for consumers to identify the environmentally safer options. Scientists also strongly feel that we need some sort of code of conduct that can be implemented not only my them, but by individuals, governments, tourism industries, and really anyone who has something to do with beach goers. These steps, along with a proposal to ban oxybenzone and other harmful chemicals in marine areas are measures that could drastically help the reef immediately. “It [oxybenzone] shouldn’t be in the environment.” said Mirella Von Lindenfels, director of the International Program of the State of the Ocean and director of Marine Safe, “It’s very hard sometimes to retain optimism about our ability to deal with those big impacts which are related to climate change, but this is something that you can take action on immediately.”
Other easy steps that can be done on an individual scale are:
1. Stop using sunscreen containing known marine harming chemicals, and instead, look for sunscreens containing titanium oxide or zinc oxide
2. Swim in long-sleeved clothing like rash guards
3. Spread the word. All voices matter; the more people who are aware of this problem along with solutions, the bigger impact it will have.
“If we can reduce the impact, the load of these chemicals on coral reefs, they will be more resilient to climate change. And if we don’t take that action and reduce those chemicals in the ocean, then we are robbing coral reefs of their resilience and their ability to recover.” said Von Lindenfels.
Why should we care?
Not only are coral reefs one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, they also protect coastlines from storms/big surf, provide homes and food for marine organisms, assist in nitrogen fixing, and bring in millions of dollars in revenue. “They help make this planet work.” said Von Lindenfels.“It’s Hawaiian Life. You can’t have Hawaii without coral reefs,” said Downs, “coral reefs are food, they produce our sense of belonging.”