[Coral-List] Sunscreen & coral

Risk, Michael riskmj at mcmaster.ca
Wed Feb 13 21:00:46 UTC 2019

Thank you for that, Kurt.
I think you are being far too modest. Readers may wish to know that you are a plant physiologist, Product Protection Deputy director of Johnson & Johnson, especially their sunscreens.

On another note: there have been several time-wasting posts on this subject, and I am sure we are all waiting for a real expert to chime in. I wish to respect Craig Downs' privacy, but he is in the middle of a fairly serious health issue and has bigger fish to fry. Some may be interested in a previous statement of his:

"I would like to “put to bed” an issue that every single cosmetic company has asked me thus far.  The statement is part of a fallacious “strawman” argument.
·         “Oxybenzone threatens every coral reef in the world.”  A modification of this statement is “oxybenzone causes global or mass coral bleaching events”.  It is easy to make this strawman argument, but it is also easy to quickly show the ridiculousness of the statement.  What I have always said in public is that oxybenzone most likely threatens coral reefs that matter most to the bulk of people in different countries/society – reefs near where people live and visit them.  Reefs important to tourism, provide food, sustain real estate values, etc.  Environmental contamination happens at least two ways on coral reefs, either by (1) swimmers, and/or (2) sewage.  So wherever there are people, especially societies that use sunscreen protection products, there is the possibility of contamination/pollution.  Reefs surrounding remote, uninhabited islands wouldn’t be expected to be exposed to oxybenzone."

Email to Jim Hendee and Kurt Reynertson, Feb 2017.
From: Coral-List [coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov] on behalf of Reynertson, Kurt [CPCUS] via Coral-List [coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov]
Sent: February 12, 2019 7:19 PM
To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
Subject: [Coral-List] Sunscreen & coral

Hello Coral-listers,

I'm a long-time reader who has never posted. This topic, however, is fascinating to me both from a scientific and policy angle. My disclaimer: I am posting as an interested scientist, and not as a representative of where I work.

I have read the primary literature on this topic with careful attention. What I fail to understand is how everyone assumes that "oxybenzone and octinoxate kill coral" based on the 2 papers in the primarily literature (1, 2).

Do these 2 papers really represent a weight of evidence? I think that is what Terry Hughes was addressing in the Conversation post.

Paper 1: The Danovaro paper places coral fragments in plastic bags and treats them to extremely high concentrations of sunscreen formulations (10 - 100 uL/L). It's not exactly clear what is really being tested, as the methods are not adequately described. And it seems that the stress of placing a sensitive organism in a plastic bag is more than unusual. Coral toxicologists I've talked to dismiss the relative significance of this paper.

Paper 2: The Downs paper is primarily based on cell culture studies. Cell culture has utility in science, but is NEVER used for environmental risk assessments. So the "toxicity" is questionable. The planulae assay is potentially more relevant, but has numerous methodological issues, including a lack of proper controls, the use of DMSO as a cosolvent, and test concentrations several orders of magnitude higher than what's been found by most of the monitoring studies. There’s no validation of the method for in situ coral, which are especially sensitive to fluctuations in light, temperature, salinity, etc. The monitoring portion of the paper is based on single samples taken from 5 sites in the US Virgin Islands and 7 sites Hawaii (most were below the LOQ). No replicates or blanks reported, and the analytical methods are lacking. Also: oxtinoxate is not even part of this study.

That's it. From a risk assessment standpoint, both studies would be assigned a Klimish score of 3, meaning they cannot be used for regulatory purposes. [FYI, Two more papers were published last month (3,4). They also lack some critical controls and still put these ingredients in the "low risk category."] That does not feel like a solid weight of evidence. If we are to accept this as a standard for banning a chemical, then there are many thousands of chemicals we should ban at the same time, including many of the "reef-safe" UV filters. There are certainly more than 2 papers on coral toxicity from titanium and zinc, and yet everyone seems to readily accept these ingredients are "reef-safe" in the same breath as they damn oxybenzone.

In fact, there's no regulatory or scientific criteria for "reef-safe." It's an opportunistic marketing term. What makes a sunscreen reef-safe anyway? I wish someone could explain that to me in scientific terms.

So should all sunscreen be banned based on the precautionary principle? The dermatologists and skin cancer experts do not think so. UV radiation is a Group 1 carcinogen, on par with smoking, and the WHO says that 4/5 of skin cancers are considered preventable. Hence the policy discussion.

P.S., These 2 ingredients are approved for use by heath agencies and regulatory bodies worldwide. Oxybenzone is NOT banned in Europe as someone suggested (5).

1) Danovaro, et al. (2008) Sunscreens cause coral bleaching by promoting viral infections. Environmental Health Perspectives. 116: 441-447.
2) Downs, et al. (2016) Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Arch Envtl
3) He, et al. 2019. Comparative toxicities of four benzophenone ultraviolet filters to two life stages of two coral species. Science of the Total Environment 651: 2391-2399.
4) He, et al. 2019. Toxicological effects of two organic ultraviolet filters and a related commercial sunscreen product in adult corals. Environmental Pollution 245: 462-471.
5) EU Cosmetic Regulation http://data.europa.eu/eli/reg/2009/1223/2016-08-12

Kurt Reynertson, PhD

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