The chemical UV-filter compounds used in sunscreen products are understood to have toxic effects on marine organisms, though there is limited research into this. These chemicals can enter the environment at the points of manufacture as well as through use by the consumer.
“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, from the University of York’s Department of Environment and Geography. “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 scientists spoke to a range of experts and found that the majority of research on UV-filter compounds focuses on freshwater organisms and ecosystems (which would not translate easily into the ecology of coral reefs), and that environmental conditions can either increase or decrease the response to toxic elements, making the true risk of the compounds difficult to establish.
“We make four recommendations for priority research areas going forward, based on our consultation with experts,” said Yasmine Watkins, who led the work as part of her Masters degree in the Department of Environment and Geography. “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.
“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.”
Long-term environmental monitoring is required in tropical and subtropical climates to understand the toxic effects in these ecosystems. The research group hopes to highlight these priority areas to better inform regulators and policy makers to improve coral reef management, while also ensuring that we can continue to use UV-filter sunscreen products to protect human health.
Photography courtesy of The Ocean Agency.