Originally published February 5 2014
Common chemical in laundry detergents kills coral reefs
by David Gutierrez, staff writer
(NaturalNews) A common ingredient in detergents, soaps and sunscreens is devastating coral reefs, in part by damaging their DNA, according to a study conducted by researchers from Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (both in Israel), along with researchers from Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The study was published in the journal Ecotoxicology.
Coral reefs form the base of ocean ecosystems containing much of the world's aquatic diversity, but they are increasingly disappearing worldwide. Although they may appear to be minerals, corals are actually colonies of tiny animals living within a mineral "shell."
Lethal at low concentrationsThe new study is the first to connect the disappearance of coral reefs with benzophenone-2 (BP-2), a chemical found in more than 380 separate product lines of body fragrances, cosmetics (including lotions and bath salts), soaps, shampoos, laundry detergents and sunscreens. Although BP-2 is not commonly used in sunscreens sold in the United States, it is closely related to the popular U.S. sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone.
BP-2 is so ubiquitous in bath and laundry products that it regularly ends up washed down the drain, where it eventually gets discharged into ocean water. It has been linked to thyroid dysfunction and cancer in human beings, and the Environmental Protection Agency considers it an emerging contaminant of concern.
The researchers exposed baby corals in the laboratory to a variety of BP-2 concentrations regularly found in U.S. wastewater effluent, ranging from 24 parts per billion to 246 parts per million. At these concentrations, the corals quickly bleached (turned white, a sign of stress) and died. The researchers also found evidence that BP-2 damaged the young corals' DNA, potentially inducing mutations.
BP-2 can rapidly "kill juvenile corals at very low concentrations - parts per billion," the researchers wrote.
Vanishing reefs"This is more bad news for coral reefs, more evidence of the pervasive and pressing impacts of land- based sources of pollution," said Michael Risk of McMaster University, who was not involved in the study.
"The results show that something humans use to protect their skin or toiletries can reach the sea from wastewater discharges, and shut down coral reproduction," he said.
In the Caribbean alone, nearly 80 percent of all corals have vanished in the past 50 years. According to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, the top three causes of reef decline are pollution, overexploitation of reef resources (often due to tourism-related development) and rising sea temperatures.
Petrochemicals, pesticides and other agricultural pollutants have been blamed for much of the pollution-related death of corals. However, BP-2 is considered a rising threat. The chemical has been widely used since the 1960s and is becoming more widespread in the oceans as human activity along coastlines increases.
"What's worrying is that if this chemical harms young coral, we won't get coral recruitment around the world," lead researcher Craig Downs said. "This will create coral zombies -- coral where's there's adults but not recruited young, so the reef will eventually go away."
Downs noted that, although pollution is probably the easiest of the three coral death risk factors to control, it has been mostly ignored.
"Until we can address the problem of pollution, there is little hope in restoring vibrant communities of coral reefs," he said.
According to researcher Omri Bronstein, the U.S. members of the research team were pressured not to publish their findings. But he noted that, while the cosmetics industry may not like the facts, eventually it will have to respond.
"I believe that not far from today we will begin to see 'BP-2 Free' tags on cosmetic products," Bronstein said. "Ultimately, our goal is to save the reefs from extinction."
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