[Coral-List] Sunscreen & Coral

Risk, Michael riskmj at mcmaster.ca
Thu Feb 21 00:56:16 UTC 2019

Steve, thanks for your kind words, and-I agree, there seems to be a problem here.

There are two interconnected issues here. No, three. First of all, to the eternal shame of the coral reef biological community, there has been general failure to recognise the threat oxybenzone sunscreens pose, and to advocate their ban. I do not see scientific hesitancy here, I see turf-guarding. There is no manger so large that a small dog won't claim all of it.

Second, there is the gee-whizz aspect of the "new threat", which makes for great media coverage. The media are not the "enemy of the people", to quote one of your statesmen, but they enjoy bright shiny things. We should rejoice in this coverage, because for the first time ever-let me repeat this-for the first time ever, we have the ability to shut off a coral stressor. I don't see this as a huge problem. Many of us have been 5-minute media sensations...it passes.

Third-and I guess this is the nub of your position-local managers may ban sunscreen and declare victory. There is no doubt they do this. Even after there was overwhelming proof of human impact on the reefs of the Florida keys, management kept blaming "global change." They were able to get away with this because reef biologists did not rise up with one voice and say NONSENSE. So I think you are right in fingering this problem, and wrong about the culprits.

I mean, what are the sunscreen savants supposed to do? Not talk to the media? Not publish??

The focus on larger threats, I feel, can only be maintained by scientists NOT involved with the sunscreen work agreeing that...I hate repeating myself...we should ban the *** things and move on.

From: Coral-List [coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov] on behalf of Steve Mussman via Coral-List [coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov]
Sent: February 19, 2019 2:58 PM
To: coral list
Subject: [Coral-List] Sunscreen & Coral

Dear Listers,

As an avid follower of this forum and a non-scientist, I recognize the fact that I am not a qualified expert,  but I have long been captivated by the science that many of you have contributed to and would like to share a few observations regarding how the science related to harmful chemicals in sunscreen products is being consumed, processed and spun in the public domain.

I don’t think it is controversial or divisive to suggest that if certain chemicals are determined to be toxic to corals and other marine life, we should support their curtailment, control or elimination.  In fact, it seems logical that this advocacy should expand to include many other products and practices contributing to ocean pollution.

It seems to me that problems arise only when related scientific findings are expressly misrepresented in some way. Often it is unclear if this is done intentionally (to promote a specific agenda) or by virtue of the media’s desire to grab attention through overemphasis and sensationalism. It is unfortunate that this can lead to scientific turf wars which feed the damaging narrative that there are wide gaps and disagreements among coral scientists as to which stressors must be addressed if we are to have any chance of saving what remains of the world’s coral reefs.

The statement in quotes below is an example of one manifestation of the problem. It was taken from a popular U.S. scuba diving periodical.  It seems to be clearly, if not deliberately misleading. In fact, in my opinion, if special interest groups consistently emphasize or overstate some (secondary) threats while disregarding the impacts of (what science has determined to be) the major contributing factors, one can’t help but suspect that *greenwashing is in play.

“Despite divers' training and love of coral ecosystems, however, some heavily visited reefs are degrading faster than ones visited less frequently. But rather than accidental contact, the major contributing factor to these declines is sunscreen pollution”.

I would argue that the general public (and coral reefs) would be better served if more accurate characterizations of the issue similar to the following taken from an Australian publication were the norm.

“So, where do the chemicals in sunscreen rank in the taxonomy of threats to global reefs”? “The biggest stresses are climate change, overfishing and pollution, and pollution more generally than sunscreen”, Hughes said. “Sunscreen, because of its source, is far less of a problem than run off of pesticides in rivers”. Downs agreed. “My professional opinion is that agricultural run-off and sewage ... are probably responsible for the historical collapse of coral reefs for the past 40 years”, he said. So, your sunscreen could be doing damage, but not at the global scale headlines implied. Plus, sunscreen is vital to lowering your odds of skin cancer. Next time you go to the beach, consider a sunscreen without all of that oxybenzone, but more importantly, lobby your local politicians for better agricultural practices and action on climate change”.

While it is true that it would be burdensome and unrealistic to suggest that coral scientists should take on the added responsibility of monitoring and censoring the wide scope of media coverage of every coral reef issue, I believe that if we are to have any hope of changing the paradigm, we will need more scientists to be willing to step up and directly challenge any overtly unsubstantiated or misleading claims brought to their attention.

Sincere regards and thanks to the coral science community for all you do. Your efforts are greatly appreciated and I’m not sure that you hear that often enough.


*Greenwashing as defined as “the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice. Greenwashing can make a company appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is”.

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