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Coral Reefs

  • Category
    Environment
  • Published
    16th Jul, 2019

Lawmakers in the US Virgin Islands have passed a bill banning the retail use of sunscreens and 10 personal-care products that contain toxic chemicals harmful for marine environment and ecosystems. The ban becomes effective by January 1, 2021.

Context

Lawmakers in the US Virgin Islands have passed a bill banning the retail use of sunscreens and 10 personal-care products that contain toxic chemicals harmful for marine environment and ecosystems. The ban becomes effective by January 1, 2021.

About

More on news:

  • Humans use sunscreens as a first line of defence against skin cancer but concerns have been raised for their effect on endocrine and reproductive systems of fishes and increases coral bleaching (when these animals turn white because of stress resulting from changes in the environment) and damage the polyps’ DNA.
  • The ban will help protect coral, marine life as well as human health.
  • In addition to environmental and human harm, tourism-based economies will experience financial devastation if coral and marine life dies off. This ripple effect would be huge.

Background

  • Coral reefs are vital for the health of underwater ecosystems. One-quarter of ocean species depend on reefs for food and shelter.
  • Over the past three years, one-fifth of the world’s coral reefs have died off — and there is a growing awareness that sunscreen is playing a role.
  • From 6,000 to 14,000 tons of sunscreen slide off of humans into coral reef areas each year, exposing the gorgeous underwater ecosystems to chemicals that can kill them.
  • In recent years researchers have documented unprecedented levels of coral bleaching. In a 2017 study, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists found that 56 % of the Big Island’s coral was bleached, as was 44 % of West Maui’s corals, and 32 % of Oahu’s reefs.

Why this ban?

  • Sunscreens are widely used to protect skin from harsh rays of sun. According to a 2015 study, published in journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, chemicals in a single drop of sunscreen are enough to damage fragile coral reef systems.
  • However, those with toxic ingredients, oxybenzone or octinoxate (these are chemical ultraviolet (UV) filters that absorb harmful rays and help prevent skin cancer), cause death among developing corals and increase coral bleaching even at temperatures below 31 degrees Celsius.
  • The presence of these chemicals in the waters can also cause genetic damage to corals, reduce their ability to cope with climate change as well as induce neurological behavioural changes in fish threatening their populations.
  • According to various scientific studies, the chemicals also appear to cause disruptions in corals’ endocrine system, which can induce feminisation in adult male fish and increase reproductive diseases.

Why this ban is not useful?

  • Banning sunscreen will not solve other problems: for example, temperature anomalies, overfishing, coral predators and the big issue of coastal runoffs that pollute and destroy reefs

Recent cases

  • Popular beaches and critical coral reef areas throughout the Virgin Islands, including Trunk Bay, Hawksnest Bay and Buck Island have all been detected with high levels of the toxic chemicals.
  • The Caribbean has already lost more than 80 % of its coral due to a variety of issues. Studies have shown that these chemicals are at 40 plus times acceptable levels in some territory waters.
  • Hawaii Island state became the first in the nation to prohibit sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are endangering coral reefs.
  • In February 2019, Key West, Florida, banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in an effort to protect coral reefs from bleaching and death.

Way Ahead

  • For now consumers who want to protect their skin without harming corals need to look for “reef-safe” products that are biodegradable, contain mineral sunblock’s with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide instead of chemical blockers, and without nanoparticles and thus designated “non-nano”.
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