As It Happens

Study shows sunscreen is killing coral reefs

Reef grief. Sunscreen may protect you at the beach, but as new research shows, the residue it leaves behind in the ocean is threatening already fragile coral reefs off the coast of Hawaii.
Bleached coral is shown in Kaneohe Bay off the east coast of Oahu, Hawaii. New research shows that sunscreen makes young coral more susceptible to bleaching. (XL Catlin Seaview Survey/AP)

Beachgoers and snorkelers commonly use sunscreen, but new research shows that a toxin in sunscreen is damaging and killing coral and reefs around the world.

The study, published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, examines the impact of the sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone on coral in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Hawaii.

Omri Bronstein, a zoology professor at Tel Aviv University, is the lead researcher of the study. He tells As it Happens host Carol Off that oxybenzone is particularly damaging to young corals. He also says the timing of the discovery is not good.

"Unfortunately, the synergistic effect, or as one of my colleagues put it: put these two together (the coral bleaching event that we're facing and the damage from the oxybenzone) and basically you have the conditions for the perfect storm, because oxybenzone also makes the corals more susceptible for bleaching," says Bronstein.

Earlier this month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that the world is facing its third coral bleaching crisis.

Coral bleaching is the loss of algal pigmentation, which leaves the corals weak and can also lead to death.

"At this point in time, we unfortunately expect that the damage will be substantial," says Bronstein.

He says wearing long-sleeved clothing or buying sunscreen without oxybenzone will help.


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