The ‘Winter blues’ drives 50% of Canadians towards a beach vacation and March Break accounts for a major part of the over 85.8 million days spent by beaches (2017 Expedia® Flip Flop Report). The R&R benefit and the break from routine are positive. Most Canadians are unaware that they contribute to coral degradation on a global scale caused by toxicity to coral and marine organisms from Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon (PAH) UV filters found in 90% of sunscreens they use. The world’s third-ever global coral bleaching event is now underway (NOAA). From Hawaii to the iconic Great Barrier Reef, eastward all the way to the Bahamas, Caribbean, coastal Central America and beyond — coral reefs are now being severely damaged or even dying. Coral degradation from sunscreen toxicity is a major factor in this devastation to the coral and marine wildlife. Effects occur within a short time frame unlike the slower pace of changes induced by a rise in ocean temperatures from climate change. Coral bleaching accelerates and worsens climate change damage and devastates coral recruitment all around the world. The undesirable UV filters are genotoxic to coral larva, which greatly lowers reef generation and coral resiliency to climate change.
The common pathway for toxicity to humans and the marine eco-system.
- First PERMEATION then HORMONE DISRUPTION, DNA mutation and genotoxicity. Coral has an epidermis similar to but less complex than human skin. The PAH UV filters used in over 80% of our sunscreens permeate human skin to varying degrees and attain blood and tissue levels. These include avobenzone, oxybenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, unencapsulated octinoxate, and 4-methyl benzylidene camphor (4-MBC). Studies confirm their presence in human blood, amniotic fluid, urine and breast milk. Human contamination is not in dispute, yet Industry and most physicians (including dermatologists) ignore or deny this fact.
- Only avobenzone has any UVA1 filtering and all the others provide UVB and some UVA2 protection. Combinations of these filters, even with 3% avobenzone as a UVA1 filter, give inadequate protection. They filter UVB to UVA in an extreme BIAS of up to 10 to 1 or more. UVB-BIASED sunscreens dominate the global sunscreen market. They prevent UVB effects like sunburn to varying degrees but cannot prevent skin cancer and photoaging to any significant degree. The unrelenting rise in global skin cancer rates support this assertion. Modern science shows that the long wave UVA1 rays are the primary drivers of skin cancer and sun damage.
- These ineffective sunscreens contaminate our bodies and the oceans. Numerous studies confirm their links to serious human disorders- from infertility in both sexes, uterine, breast, prostate and thyroid cancers, autism, ADHD, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, obesity, 5% of adult Diabetes, and perhaps 1/3 of all cases of endometriosis and uterine fibroids in women.
- Oxybenzone is contaminating marine environments – washing off swimmers to municipal, residential, and the wastewater effluent from marine vessels. A 2015 report (Downs et al) confirms other studies that oxybenzone is genotoxic, kills larvae of reproducing coral, and converts the planula from a motile to a sessile state by ossification, acting as a skeletal hormone disruptor. Coral reef contamination of oxybenzone in the U.S. Virgin Islands ranged from 75 μg/L to 1.4 mg/L, whereas Hawaiian sites were contaminated between 0.8 and 19.2 μg/L. Concentrations of oxybenzone and homosalate in Japanese waters ranged from 0.5-1340 ng/L and 0.5-214 ng/L respectively. Finally, concentrations of oxybenzone and avobenzone in South Carolina waters ranged from 37.6 – 591 ng/L and 31.9 – 234 ng/L.
- This persuasive science led to the ban of some of these toxic filters in Hawaii, Palau, and Key West. The entire group needs to be avoided in humans, if only by virtue of their permeation. The risk of permeation should a label warning on PAH sunscreens, particularly in pregnancy and for young children- just the same way there is for alcohol and cigarettes. The health risks of these estrogenic benzene compounds to all of us are considerable. They outweigh risks of BPA (bisphenyl A) banned in some countries by applying the Precautionary Principle. This precautionary and sensible approach is consistent with the first dictum in medicine – primum non nocere – first do no harm. Neither are being applied where these toxic UV filters are concerned. Label warnings of entry to our bodies might convince prudent parents to avoid them and greatly decrease their use. This would also protect the coral.
- Numerous studies have identified significant stress responses and mortality in scleractinian corals exposed to relatively low concentrations of these chemicals, even parts per billion All will potentially permeate and harm the coral. I have been invited to join a research team at Halmos Laboratory of Natural Sciences and Oceanography (Nova Southeastern University) to study the whether avobenzone and homosalate have the same deleterious effects on our oceans as oxybenzone. It is highly probable that they will.
The Human Tragedy and Economic Consequences
There is no way to calculate the human tragedy when infertility and other endocrine disorders occur from hormone disruption caused by UV filters, even if the risk is low. In humans they represent a primary exposure to hormone disruptors in a first world modern society – now more likely than DDT, dioxin, BPA, and others. Diseases related to all hormone disruptors cost the US health care system 360 billion dollars (2014). The economic costs of destroying coral and marine wildlife are even more enormous.
- It is estimated that 15-20,000 tons of hydrocarbon sunscreens wash off annually and destroy our reefs, similar to the way an oil spill would. Oil spills are episodic events, sunscreen slicks are daily and worldwide. The sunscreen slick can damage reefs 6-10 miles offshore.
- 1,200 square miles of coral reefs in the United States generate more than a billion dollars per year in related benefits and business. Areas with more reef area like Southeast Asia, benefits annually from corals at 12.5 billion. Coral reefs acting as the sentinel organism in the marine ecosystem provide 8 trillion USD of economic benefits to humans.
- The Caribbean has lost 80% of its reefs in the past 50 years mostly before 1991 and paralleled the growth of mass tourism and mega cruise ships. Reef systems in the Bahamas are showing the slow deterioration in coral and marine wildlife over the past 30 years, not due to oil spills in the Gulf as suggested by the government. The loop current would take the contamination up the east coast of Florida. The more likely answer is the large amounts of these toxic sunscreen hydrocarbons being deposited in the coastal waters of the Bahamas by the millions of visitors in resorts and cruise ships. Resorts in Thailand (Maya Beach), the Philippines (Borocay Bay) and in Indonesia have had to shut down beaches and close hotels, because of dead coral reefs. Thoughtless mass tourism damages the local environment. Once the coral dies, the marine life leaves, and the white sand beaches disappear. Then the tourists no longer visit.
The Ironic Paradox
Sunscreens are meant to prevent skin cancer. UVB-BIASED sunscreens using soluble polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) filters clearly may not. Rising global skin cancer rates support this view. The global rise parallels the dominance of UVB-BIASED sunscreens. So these sunscreens with PAH filters pollute our bodies and the oceans and may actually be a factor in rising cancer rates.
- Skin cancer accounts for > 50 % of all cancers in N. America – more than all others combined. Melanoma rates in the USA tripled between 1975 – 2014, now the leading cause of cancer death in women ages 15-30, the second leading cause of cancer death in women ages 30-35, and the second most commonly diagnosed cancer age 15-29. One person dies of melanoma every 54 minutes in N. America.
- Global skin cancer rates rose at 3-8 % annually (The Global Burden of Disease Study 2015) It also reported that in the prior 10 years, there was a 27.2% and 42.9% increase in the global death rate from melanoma and NMSC respectively.
- UVB-BIASED sunscreens lack the UVA protection required to prevent skin cancer and photoaging. Mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide in high concentrations, alone or combined with titanium dioxide, do not permeate human skin, avoids all the controversial effects in humans, gives better broad spectrum protection against UVA1, and is very likely better for the land based and marine environment.
- Most of the PAH filters and some of the undesirable preservatives used with them represent the leading causes of allergic contact dermatitis or photocontact allergy , if the reaction is precipitated by sunlight. This affects only a few individuals but it is IRONIC that most dermatologists still recommend the use of UVB-BIASED sunscreens, even if you discount the permeation and hormone disruption in humans and coral. Zinc oxide cannot cause this type of allergy, an additional advantage to its better protection and safety.
The Simple Solution
The persuasive evidence of sunscreen toxicity to coral led Hawaii in March of 2018 to ban oxybenzone, and unencapsulated octinoxate – effectively eliminating 90% of the sunscreens Canadians use at home and abroad. Palau in the Pacific Rim instituted a wider ban in November 2018 on oxybenzone, octinoxate, 4-MBC, octocrylene, 4 kinds of parabens, triclosan, and phenoxyethanol. Key West followed Hawaii and just approved a ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate. A ban on ineffective sunscreens that are also toxic to humans and the environment is “low-hanging fruit”. It requires no large capital expenditure on anyone’s part – unlike other initiatives to tackle global warming. If you stop wearing sunscreens with soluble filters like benzophenone and spread the word on social media, there would be an enormous benefit to human health. This action is a win-win. It preserves human reproductive and metabolic health – saving billions in unseen health care costs. Using mineral sunscreens can actually prevent skin cancer and photoaging. It simultaneously preserves the sanctity of our oceans, as a sanctuary for marine wildlife and a key player in the global food supply, global economics, a livelihood for millions, coastal protection, fisheries, tourism, recreation and biodiversity.
HUMAN and REEF safe sunscreens are hard to find in resorts of the Caribbean, the Bahamas and S. Florida.
Governments and the tourism industry should lead in this important initiative. I have approached Government ministers and resort owners in island nations and provided the scientific evidence for human concerns and pointed them to the Downs study. The silence is deafening! The ordinary citizen can show the leadership. Make an informed choice on your March Break holiday. Avoid sunscreens that enter your child’s body, are unlikely to prevent sunburn and skin cancer, are a primary source of exposure to hormone disruptors, and harm the land based and marine environment. Just the fact that these benzene compounds enter blood and tissue should give you pause. Change to a mineral sunscreen – zinc oxide with or without titanium dioxide. Clear or transparent zinc oxide sunscreens using 15-25 % concentrations provide the best safe and effective broad spectrum protection. Those with < 15% are safe but do not provide adequate UVA protection to be optimally effective against skin cancer and photoaging. Our Simply Zinc Ultra, the only 25% zinc oxide dispersion available is the most protective mineral sunscreen anywhere – www.thesunscreencompany.com .
A cautionary word. Unscrupulous sunscreen companies are already using the ban on some UV filters to their advantage and deceptively market products as “Hawaiian Reef Friendly” or “Reef Safe”. If they contain any of the toxic six PAH filters – avobenzone, oxybenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, unencapsulated octinoxate, and 4-MBC – they are not likely human or reef safe and should be avoided. They are likely to be absorbed at a faster rate by coral than they do through human skin, even that of your children. The NSU research is looking into the question of whether their similar hormone disruption in humans also extends to coral. It is more likely than not that they will act like oxybenzone and ossify the coral planula.
The industry and their dermatology partners have already started a publicity campaign to discredit the science on coral and marine wildlife toxicity, or to minimize and dismiss its significance. To them I pose this question. In the case of oxybenzone – can they name one other drug, OTC medication, pesticide, or contaminant that is present in 97% of people tested, in breast milk, amniotic fluid, and now being found widely in our rivers, lakes, oceans and municipal or cruise ship waste water? The enormity of this seems to be lost on the dermatology/industry alliance. Most politicians or hotel resort executive in the Caribbean and island nations actually pay lip service to reef conservation, and their inaction enables the environmental disaster. When the reefs die, it damages their tourist based economies. The harm to their marine based food supply and livelihood of their citizens is inestimable. The solution is so simple. Each of us can do this. Take a precautionary and prudent approach where the health of your family is concerned and conserve the health of our oceans at the same time. Wear UV protective clothing (like SolumbraTM) in the water. Sharyn Laughlin – dermatologist has been wearing these proven UV protective garments – she never goes south without them. Covering most of your body with UV protective clothing reduces the amount of sunscreen you use. Wear a mineral sunscreen. Both measures will be very effective reef and marine conservation. All that is required is the courage to act decisively. Time is of the essence. Coral may be the canary in the proverbial coal mine. It takes weeks to months for coral to die and up to 40 years or more for effects to be seen in humans.
© Denis K. Dudley MD, FEB 2019. All rights reserved.