Chemicals in our sunscreen contribute to the demise of coral reefs. What can we do?
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The same chemicals in sunscreen that protect our skin from harmful UV rays are also contributing to the demise of coral reefs around the world. If we want to save coral but also protect our skin from the sun, what can we do?
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Coral reefs are not only beautiful, they are an important part of our oceans’ ecosystems and support a diverse group of marine life. Some estimates suggest that 90% of the world’s coral is under threat of dying by 2050. Certain chemicals in sunscreen aren’t the only reason coral reefs are dying. The situation is actually quite complicated. Climate change, overfishing, and ocean acidification are also all playing a role.
However, the chemicals in sunscreen are considered harmful enough to these ecosystems that Hawaii is trying to ban the use of sunscreens with these reef-killing components in them. Now, they aren’t alone. The Center for Biological diversity has petitioned the federal government to ban the same chemicals across the country. So now the question remains, how can we protect our skin and coral reefs?
How does sunscreen harm coral?
A major study found that the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which is present in many the common sunscreens we use, is changing the DNA of coral cells so that mature coral becomes sterile and unable to reproduce while younger ones trap themselves in their own skeletons, where they starve and and die.
What about coral bleaching?
Oxybenzone also exacerbate the problem of coral bleaching because it causes the coral to absorb more heat. Coral bleaching occurs when water temperatures rise to around 87 or 88 degrees Fahrenheit, causing coral to expel the algae called zooxanthellae, which is what gives coral their vibrant colors.
Are all sunscreens bad?
No, there are quite a few options that are totally safe for you and the environment. For example, sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are good options. And, of course, there’s always the option to stay covered up with clothes or in the shade.
Want to bring Above the Noise into the classroom? Check out our lesson plan other support materials:
Slathering on sunscreen at the beach? It may be destroying coral reefs
CDC: Americans Carry Body Burden of Toxic Sunscreen Chemical https://www.ewg.org/news/testimony-official-correspondence/cdc-americans-carry-body-burden-toxic-sunscreen-chemical#.WyKwwxJKhBw
Here Are Some Alternatives to Reef-Damaging Sunscreen
Push to Ban Coral-Killing Sunscreens Goes National
Sunscreen can tip the balance toward invasive species in Maui’s coral reefs
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KQED, an NPR and PBS affiliate in San Francisco, CA, serves Northern California and beyond with a public-supported alternative to commercial TV, Radio, and web media. Funding for Above the Noise is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Silver Giving Foundation, Stuart Foundation, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.