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How is sunscreen impacting coral reefs?

Experts at the University of York are urging for further investigation into the potential environmental impacts of sunscreen, particularly on the world’s coral reefs.

While it is known that UV-filter compounds have toxic effects on marine life, studies in this area are limited and do not account for certain variables, such as differences in environmental conditions.

“Given the declining status of coral reef ecosystems and the many stressors they already face, it is important to identify the potential occurrence and toxicological risks associated with UV-filter exposure to reef ecosystems,” said Dr. Brett Sallach. “Our research aimed to identify what research was out there and what gaps we had in our knowledge.” 

“Importantly we needed to understand what areas could be considered priority for future attention in order to understand the impacts of these products, and hopefully prevent any further damage to the environment.”

“Undoubtedly products that can help protect against the harmful effects of UV radiation on human health are hugely important, and therefore we need reliable and extensive evidence to suggest any changes or scaling back of these products.”

The researchers consulted with experts in the field of marine UV-filter exposure to understand the limitations of current research and what areas need urgent attention.

The team found that the majority of research on UV-filter compounds has been focused on freshwater ecosystems.

The analysis also revealed that environmental conditions can either increase or decrease the response that organisms have to toxic elements, which means that the true risks of sunscreen exposure are not yet known. According to the researchers, coral reefs will require long-term monitoring.

“We make four recommendations for priority research areas going forward, based on our consultation with experts. We need more work in the area of understanding UV-filter toxicity under different climate conditions, and long-term study into exposure and recovery of coral reefs,” said study lead author Yasmine Watkins.

“We also need to know realistic exposure to these compounds and how long they exist in the marine environment, to determine what the ‘safe’ limits are.”

The researchers aim to highlight these priority areas to better inform regulators and policy makers to improve conservation and management of coral reefs.

The study is published in the journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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