Photo Credit: courtesy, BGU
Fish swimming among coral at the Red Sea.

Research at Ben Gurion University of the Negev has led the South Pacific island nation of Palau to ban sunscreen that contains harmful chemicals, in order to save its coral reefs, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Republic of Palau signed The Responsible Tourism Education Act of 2018 into law Wednesday, making the tiny island nation the first country in the world to ban sunscreen products containing environmentally harmful ingredients, based in part on research conducted by BGU Professor Ariel Kushmaro.

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The law which takes effect in 2020, prohibits use of environmental pollutants that threaten juvenile stages of many wildlife species, including corals, fish, and microalgae. The banned-substancs on the list include oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene and 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor and parabens. These are all sun protection factor (SPF) chemicals used in sunscreen lotions or fragrances that absorb ultraviolet light from the sun.

The four parabens, triclosan, and phenoxyethanol are antimicrobial preservatives used in sunscreens, shampoos, moisturizers, liquid soaps, and hair conditioners. Marine biologists and environmentalists, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), say the banned substances can reduce the resiliency of ecosystems to climate change factors and, by themselves, prevent the recovery of degrading wildlife and habitats.

The resulting damage to coral reefs, including coral bleaching, in the South Pacific, Caribbean, Australia, Eilat and elsewhere poses a threat to one-quarter of marine species, threatens shorelines as well as vibrant tourism in affected areas.

Prof. Kushmaro is the author of Vibriosis, a chapter on causative agents of coral disease published in the 2015 book Coral Disease, as well as a contributor to the 2015 study 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, published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

Prof. Kushmaro, the John A. Ungar Chair in Biotechnology, is a member of the Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering, The Ilse Katz Center for Meso and Nanoscale Science and Technology and the National Institute for Biotechnology in the Negev.

Palau is one of the smallest countries in the world, and a popular destination for scuba diving enthusiasts. The country is comprised of some 340 islands, encompassing an area of 466 square kilometers (180 sq mi).

The Palau ban follows a similar move by the US state of Hawaii earlier this year: On May 4, the state legislature banned oxybenzone (BP3) beginning in 2021 in an attempt to prevent coral bleaching, a condition by which corals expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their tissues, causing the coral to turn completely white.

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