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More Light Shown on Impact of Some Sunscreens on Marine, Potentially Human Life

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Almost a year ago, Green Lodging News published a blog post detailing the efforts of several companies in Hawaii to urge guests to use reef-safe sunscreens. A recent study by Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) strengthens the case for using these types of sunscreens. The study detected an extensive amount of sunscreen chemicals in seawater that could pose a risk to human health. The study found the chemicals can cause abnormalities in and kill the offspring of zebrafish by entering the food chain. As the genetic structure of zebrafish resembles that of humans, the results imply that these contaminants could pose a risk to humans. The study also revealed that these contaminants are commonly found in the coastal waters of Hong Kong.

The study team was led by Dr. Kelvin Leung Sze-yin, Associate Professor of the Department of Chemistry of HKBU. The team collected seawater samples from 30 locations off the Hong Kong coast. Seven commonly used organic UV (ultra-violet) filters, the active ingredients in sunscreens, were investigated. The team also collected fish, shrimps, mussels and other wild organisms from seven local aquaculture farms around Hong Kong. The team found the presence of UV filters in concentrations ranging from 3.1 to 51.3 nanograms in each gram of the samples. The findings indicated that the UV filters that accumulated in marine life could possibly pass up the food chain to humans and affect our health.

The team simulated the real aquatic environment in a laboratory where contaminated artemia were fed to zebrafish for 47 days. The contaminated water contained three commonly used UV filters, namely benzophenone-3 (BP-3), ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate (EHMC) and octocrylene (OC).

Embryos Particularly Impacted

After 47 days, none of the adult zebrafish appeared to be damaged, but several of their embryos were found to have malformations or abnormalities. The embryos’ 24-hour mortality rate increased dramatically, from 10 percent to nearly 60 percent, while the 72-hour hatching rate decreased significantly, from 80 percent to less than 30 percent.

Dr. Leung said the study found that the combined presence of BP-3, EHMC and OC creates “a mixture effect” that increases their accumulation compared with the case when only one chemical is present. This increase was particularly marked in zebrafish. “Since more than 70 percent of the genetic structure of zebrafish resembles that of humans, the effect of these contaminants passing along the food chain to humans and the long-term impact on human fertility cannot be neglected,” he added.

Dr. Leung said that after human use, the organic/chemical UV filters in sunscreens are discharged into the sea either directly by being washed off with sea water or indirectly through discharge of wastewater. Eventually they enter the sea, thereby posing a threat to marine organisms and the ecosystem. He called for regulations to cover the use of chemicals in personal care products and said more research should be done on the long-term impact of these contaminants. He recommends the usage of natural, mineral-based sunscreens, for instance, Titanium dioxide and Zinc oxide.

The study was published in the renowned academic scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology.

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