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Chemical interactions put coral reefs in danger

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

coral_reef.jpgAbout two years ago, my Grandma was on about 8 different medications when her primary doctor asked her to bring them all in to sort them out. Lo and behold there were a number of funny interactions and they dropped her down to four. We only wish the government and industry would take some responsibility to guard against interactions from chemicals that build up in our bodies and the environment.

A new study appeared last month in Environmental Health Perspectives (here's a nice summary) detailing how certain sunscreen and cosmetic ingredients (Warning, Skin Deep geeks only: oxybenzone, octylmethyl cinnamate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, and butylparaben) activated viruses that were already lurking in the ocean's coral, causing them to actually attack symbiotic algae that provides the coral with critical nutrients. This builds on other work showing that one of these ingredients (oxybenzone) may contribute to the feminization of male fish while another another (4-methylbenzylidene camphor) is no longer approved for use in the EU after a series of studies raised questions about the ingredient's effect on the thyroid of young children (This ingredient isn't allowed in US sunscreens... yet).

Eek, does this mean we should stop using sunscreens? Let's parse it out:

First, cosmetics and drugs already get a free pass when it comes to their environmental impact. Years of fragrances in cosmetics and detergents has led to the build-up of millions of pounds of musks in the Lake Michigan (not to mention, us). And yeah, there might be Prozac in your tap water. We've been testing water down the drain in San Francisco. EPA has a big research program trying to understand the probllem while helping local water utilities clean-up the chemical cocktail coming down the drain. However, until FDA actually requires some sort of forward thinking here, such as requiring companies to think about the environmental consequences of all these chemicals. . . nothing doing.

Second, there is no good way for scientists to identify chemicals that might be fine by themselves, but really wreak some havoc when there's something else around. In this particular case, the viruses don't target humans, so there is no danger to humans. Nothing requires companies to even consider this when creating new cosmetics or industrial chemicals. We know that, from birth we're pre-polluted with hundreds of chemicals. It is just too bad we don't know the effects. We'll come back to this topic in another post.

OK, so enough doom and gloom... Here's what you can do

  • To not get burned AND prevent long-term skin damage like cancer, your best bet is to stay out of the sun (10 am - 4 pm).
  • Wear a floppy hat.
  • If you are going to go out in the sun, slather on the sunscreen, but use EWG's sunscreen ratings (which fold in environmental hazards along with what works best).
  • Use fewer personal care products, and choose products with fewer ingredients (and avoid fragrance!).
For the bigger picture, FDA needs to start cracking down on chemicals that have an effect down the drain (and may end up back in us). We'd all benefit from some better chemical laws.

Photo: Coral Reef by only_point_five.


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