Hawaii’s coral reef has become victim to a very strange phenomenon that has resulted in scientists banning the use of sunscreen in the area. Corals in Hawaii have been exhibiting high amounts of stress that is causing them to envelop themselves in their exoskeletons and dying off. The exact reason behind this behaviour is still uncertain, but researchers have managed to figure out that certain chemicals present in sunscreen are responsible for this kind of behaviour amongst corals. While they are still uncertain whether these chemicals are the leading cause of corals dying, the government of Hawaii has decided to ban the use of these chemicals until they get a better idea of what is going on.
This decision has resulted in outrage amongst people worrying about getting skin burned or developing skin cancer, but the government has decided to take this step in order to preserve its coral reefs.
We know that when a coral undergoes stress, it begins to “ossify”, meaning that is covers itself in its own bone material in order to protect itself, however, if the stress does not go away, a coral eventually ossifies all the way through and dies. The reason why researchers believe that sunscreen is responsible for coral stress is because oxybenzone and octinoxate (the two major culprits present in sunscreen) have previously been known for causing corals to bleach themselves.
Researchers believe that oxybenzone triggers a hormonal disruption in corals that makes them unable to properly regulate their skeletons, oxybenzone is present in about 70% of suncscreens used in USA. Octinoxate is not as commonly found as oxybenzone, but it is known for leading to coral bleaching.
Oxybenzone is the main culprit so far, due to the fact that there is scientific evidence indicating that this chemical causes a disruption in various bodily hormones in mammals, including estrogen. A high level of estrogen in the body results in the body producing excessive amounts of bone tissue, if oxybenzone has similar effects on coral hormones then this could be one way in which it is forcing corals to kill themselves. Another way in which oxybenzone is causing corals to die is by disrupting their ability to send signals throughout their body.
While we can make educated guesses, sadly we simply do not know enough to be able to state what exactly is causing corals to die like this and how is it managing it. Even the best coral researchers in the world are currently only able to hypothesis about the situation, all we can do at the moment is find a better alternative for sunscreen. The bill for banning sunscreen in Hawaii will become active in 2021, so anyone who wants to spend time on Hawaii’s beaches still have plenty of time to look for alternative sunscreens or simply find other ways of protecting their skin.
Corals are an important part of the shallow sea ecosystem, which is why it is highly important to safeguard them and prevent them from dying out.