LOS ANGELES (CN) – Ahead of a long weekend where millions will flock to beaches around the United States, conservationists petitioned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday to ban two chemicals found in sunscreen that are known to irreparably damage coral reefs.
The Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement that oxybenzone and octinoxate accelerate viral infections in coral reefs – ecosystems already under grave threats from ocean warming, ocean acidification, overfishing and pollution – which can lead to coral bleaching and eventually death.
The petition said the FDA has a legal duty under the National Environmental Policy Act to prevent both chemicals from jeopardizing endangered corals found off the coast of Florida and U.S. islands in the Caribbean.
“Coral reefs are in real trouble, and the FDA can help. Removing coral-killing chemicals from sunscreens is a simple, obvious step we’re long overdue in taking,” said Emily Jeffers, a biologist and attorney at the Center. “There are great nontoxic sunscreens out there. As we enjoy our oceans this Memorial Day weekend, let’s not pollute them.”
Lab studies have shown that even a miniscule amount of oxybenzone in the water is toxic to corals. Just 62 parts per trillion – the equivalent of three drops mixed into an Olympic-sized swimming pool – has been found to damage coral larvae.
Scientists estimate that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion enter coral reefs around the world every year. High concentrations of oxybenzone have been found in many areas popular with sunscreen-slathered tourists, including Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, the Florida Keys and the U.S Virgin Islands.
Wednesday’s petition follows a similar measure approved May 1 by the Hawaii Legislature, where coral reefs have been harmed by ocean warming, acidification and pollution from man-made chemicals and coastal runoff.
In January, the Trump administration proposed opening large tracts of seabed off the South Carolina coast to oil and gas exploration.
The area is dotted with thousands of unexploded bombs, poison gas and radioactive waste, according to the Department of Defense which acknowledged dumping had taken place there.
An accidental detonation would injure or kill marine animals and release hazardous chemicals that are deadly to protected or sensitive corals, environmentalists say. Local fishery operations would also be negatively impacted.
But the Trump administration has done one thing right by our oceans: on April 16, the administration reversed course and went to federal court to defend a marine preserve monument established by former President Barack Obama in September 2016.
The monument, which covers an area with large swaths of fragile deep-sea corals, was challenged by local fishermen and lobsterman whose commercial activity was cut off by the protected status of the area.
In the past three decades, unusually warm waters have caused coral reefs around the world to experience unprecedented mass bleaching, the first step toward the death of the biologically rich marine ecosystems.
A March 23 report by United Nations scientists said the Asia-Pacific region will lose 45 percent of its biodiversity and about 90 percent of its crucial corals if ecosystems are not protected and climate change is left unmitigated.
Wednesday’s petition urges the FDA to examine the environmental impacts of the two chemicals.
“The FDA needs to heed the science and keep these harmful chemicals out of our imperiled coral reefs,” Jeffers said. “Coral reefs are the cornerstones of healthy oceans, and the least we can do is keep our sunscreen from killing them.”