Do chemicals in sunscreens threaten aquatic life? A new report says a thorough assessment is ‘urgently needed,’ while also calling sunscreens essential protection against skin cancer

Sunscreens for sale at a Walgreens drug store. Jeff Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

by Robert Richmond, University of Hawaii and Karen Glanz, University of Pennsylvania

Studies have shown that the same active ingredients in sunscreens that protect people from cancer-causing ultraviolet rays can be toxic to a range of species in oceans, rivers and lakes. With both of these risks in mind, a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine finds an urgent need for more information about whether these chemicals threaten aquatic life on a broad scale.

The report calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a detailed review called an environmental risk assessment of the likelihood that exposure to one or more of these chemicals, called UV filters, may harm organisms in saltwater and freshwater ecosystems. The study recommends focusing on two types of settings – coral reefs in shallow waters near shore, and slow-moving freshwater bodies like ponds and marshes – that are heavily used for recreation and/or exposed to wastewater or urban runoff.

The study recognizes that sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher is an effective defense against sunburn and skin cancer, and that making it harder to buy broad-spectrum sunscreen that people will actually use could harm public health. Accordingly, it calls for research examining how changes in sunscreen usage could affect human health. Two members of the study committee explain how their group balanced these concerns.

Many species are exposed to many stresses

Robert Richmond, Research Professor and Director, Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii at Manoa

Studies to date have provided compelling laboratory evidence that some UV filters can have toxic effects on aquatic species, including corals, anemones and zebrafish, that are exposed to the chemicals. These findings have raised concerns about sunscreens’ larger-scale impacts on biological communities and ecosystems.

But outcomes in the environment will differ depending on what compounds, ecosystems and local environmental conditions are involved. That’s especially true for coral reefs. The committee highlighted reefs because they are ecologically, economically and culturally valuable, and attract large numbers of tourists who use sunscreens.

Coral reefs are declining worldwide due to multiple human-induced disturbances. Some of these disturbances are global, such as ocean warming and acidification driven by climate change. Other stressors, such as coastal water quality, are more local.

Studying the effects of chemicals on corals and coral reefs is challenging because they are both complex systems. Reef-building corals are a combination of an animal, single-celled algae and rich populations of bacteria living and working together. Coral reefs are made up of thousands of interacting organisms.

Importantly, many stress responses in corals occur without causing outright death, but impair their health, growth, resilience and even ability to reproduce. Scientists need to know more about these responses to guide effective management responses and interventions.

Dozens of parrotfish swim over a reef of res, white and yellow corals.
Healthy coral reefs like this one in American Samoa support such diverse communities of fish and other organisms that they often are called the rainforests of the sea. Kevin Lino, NOAA/Flickr, CC BY

After in-depth reviews of the existing data, our study committee recommended that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should undertake an ecological risk assessment of the 17 UV filters used in sunscreens sold in the U.S. Such a study would include a comparison of toxicity findings to relevant concentrations and exposure conditions.

For example, what happens to organisms exposed to these chemicals occasionally versus those exposed regularly, in calm bays or along open, wave-swept coasts? How do UV filters differ in whether they break down in water, or accumulate in sediments or the tissues of living organisms?

In our view, an ecological risk assessment would provide EPA and others the basis for sound and effective policy development. The sooner this happens and the results are applied to the regulatory process, the better for everyone who is affected, including future generations.

Lab results versus real-world conditions

Karen Glanz, George A. Weiss University Professor and Director, UPenn Prevention Research Center, University of Pennsylvania

The question of whether UV filters pose harm to the environment while helping to reduce skin damage and prevent skin cancer is a conundrum. It seemingly pits human and environmental health against each other head-to-head and asks policymakers, medical experts and the public to choose between them.

Humans need sunlight to live, but overexposure to the sun’s damaging rays – ultraviolet radiation – causes sunburn and wrinkles and is a risk factor for the development of skin cancers, including the most deadly type, melanoma. Routine use of broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30+ when outdoors has been found to prevent skin damage and skin cancer. But sunscreens are most effective as part of a set of behaviors that also includes wearing hats and cover-up clothing and seeking shade.

Most people in the U.S. don’t practice these behaviors frequently or thoroughly enough. So it’s important to weigh very carefully the potential effects of restricting the choice of available sunscreens.

Some jurisdictions already restrict the sale of certain sunscreens because concerned advocates believe doing so will be good for the environment. In the U.S., they include Hawaii, the U.S Virgin Islands and the city of Key West, Florida. Our report doesn’t draw a definitive conclusion about whether these measures are scientifically justified or effective. Rather, it emphasizes analyzing whether and how they may affect human health as well as the environment.

The study draws attention to the challenge of understanding risks from UV filters to aquatic environments under various conditions, and in the context of overarching environmental stressors such as rising sea temperatures. It’s important to understand that for both environmental and human health issues, laboratory studies don’t always match what happens in the environment.

Studies of model systems such as bacteria and yeast, and organisms such as fish embryos and insect larvae, can yield findings that do not hold up in studies of humans. For both the environment and humans, it may not be possible or ethical to conduct true experiments that test the long-term effects of chemicals in UV filters.

Members of our committee wrestled to interpret the available evidence, and also with the gaps in that evidence. Ultimately we concluded that the science is not settled, but that there is much to build on to advance understanding of this issue. Our conclusions are not a win/lose outcome for either the environment or humans. Rather, they point to a need to think both broadly and strategically for the benefit of people and the planet.

Robert Richmond, Professor of Biology and Director, Kewalo Marine Laboratory, University of Hawaii and Karen Glanz, George A. Weiss University Professor and Director, UPenn Prevention Research Center, University of Pennsylvania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2022 Better Buildings, Better Plants Summit recap

In May, approximately 700 attendees from public, private, and industrial sectors gathered for the 2022 Better Buildings, Better Plants Summit for two and a half days of networking, discussions, and energy efficiency-focused tours of local facilities.

View the Summit opening plenary, including the keynote address from National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy, and the Summit presentation decks and transcripts.

58% of human infectious diseases can be worsened by climate change – we scoured 77,000 studies to map the pathways

Flooding from hurricanes like Irma in Florida can overwhelm sewer systems and spread pathogens in other ways. Brian Blanco/Getty Images

by Tristan McKenzie, University of Gothenburg; Camilo Mora, University of Hawaii, and Hannah von Hammerstein, University of Hawaii

Climate change can exacerbate a full 58% of the infectious diseases that humans come in contact with worldwide, from common waterborne viruses to deadly diseases like plague, our new research shows.

Our team of environment and health scientists reviewed decades of scientific papers on all known pathogenic disease pathogens to create a map of the human risks aggravated by climate-related hazards.

The numbers were jarring. Of 375 human diseases, we found that 218 of them, well over half, can be affected by climate change.

Flooding, for example, can spread hepatitis. Rising temperatures can expand the life of mosquitoes carrying malaria. Droughts can bring rodents infected with hantavirus into communities as they search for food.

With climate change influencing more than 1,000 transmission pathways like those and climate hazards increasingly globally, we concluded that expecting societies to successfully adapt to all of them isn’t a realistic option. The world will need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change to reduce these risks.

Mapping climate health hazards

To be able to prevent global health crises, humanity needs a comprehensive understanding of the pathways and the magnitude with which climate change might affect pathogenic diseases.

We focused on 10 climate-related hazards linked to rising greenhouse gas emissions: atmospheric warming, heat waves, drought, wildfires, heavy precipitation, flooding, storms, sea-level rise, ocean warming and land cover change. Then we looked for studies discussing specific and quantifiable observations of human disease occurrences linked to those hazards.

In total, we reviewed over 77,000 scientific papers. Of those, 830 papers had a climatic hazard affecting a specific disease in an explicit place and/or time, allowing us to create a database of climatic hazards, transmission pathways, pathogens and diseases. An interactive map of every pathway between hazard and pathogen is available online.

Spaghetti chart showing pathways connecting climate disaster types, like flooding and heat, and specific types of pathogens, like bacteria and viruses.
A simplified version of the pathogenic disease chart shows how different climate disasters interact with transmission pathways and pathogens. The full version is available at Camilo Mora, CC BY-ND

The largest number of diseases aggravated by climate change involved vector-borne transmission, such as those spread by mosquitoes, bats or rodents. Looking at the type of climate hazard, the majority were associated with atmospheric warming (160 diseases), heavy precipitation (122) and flooding (121).

How climate influences pathogen risk

We found four key ways climatic hazards interact with pathogens and humans:

1) Climate-related hazards bring pathogens closer to people.

In some cases, climate-related hazards are shifting the ranges of animals and organisms that can act as vectors for dangerous pathogenic diseases.

For example, warming or changes in precipitation patterns can alter the distribution of mosquitoes, which are vectors of numerous human pathogenic diseases. In recent decades, geographic changes in outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue have been linked to these climatic hazards.

A woman strokes her child's head next to other sleeping under a bed net
Children sleep under nets in Ethiopia to protect against malaria-spreading mosquitoes. Louise Gubb/Corbis via Getty Images

2) Climate-related hazards bring people closer to pathogens.

Climate disasters can also alter human behavior patterns in ways that increase their chances of being exposed to pathogens. For example, during heat waves, people often spend more time in water, which can lead to an increase in waterborne disease outbreaks.

Notably, Vibrio-associated infections increased substantially in Sweden and Finland following a heat wave in northern Scandinavia in 2014.

3) Climate-related hazards enhance pathogens.

In some cases, climate-related hazards have led to either environmental conditions that can increase opportunities for pathogens to interact with vectors or increase the ability of pathogens to cause severe illness in humans.

For example, standing water left by heavy precipitation and flooding can provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes, leading to increased transmission of diseases such as yellow fever, dengue, malaria, West Nile fever and leishmaniasis.

A person wearing trash bags around each leg to keep them dry crosses a flooded city street in New Jersey. An overturned trash can floats in the background.
Many waterborne diseases can be spread by climate hazards like flooding and extreme downpours. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Studies have shown that rising temperatures may also help viruses become more resistant to heat, resulting in increased disease severity as pathogens become better able to adapt to fever in the human body.

For instance, studies have suggested that rising global temperatures are leading to increased heat tolerance of fungal pathogens. The sudden appearance on multiple continents of treatment-resistant human infections of Candida auris, a fungus that was previously nonpathogenic to humans, has been associated with increasing global temperatures. Similarly, fungi in urban environments have been shown to be more heat tolerant than those in rural areas, which tend to be cooler.

Theories on the emergence of Candida auris. Arturo Casadevall, Dimitrios P. Kontoyiannis, Vincent Robert via Wikimedia, CC BY-ND

4) Climate-related hazards weaken the body’s ability to cope with pathogens.

Climate-related hazards can affect the human body’s ability to cope with pathogens in two key ways. They can force people into hazardous conditions, such as when disaster damage leads to people living in crowded conditions that might lack good sanitation or increase their exposure to pathogens.

Hazards can also reduce the body’s capacity to fight off pathogens, through malnutrition, for example. Living through climatic hazards may also induce increased cortisol production from stress, leading to a reduction in the human body’s immune response.

What to do about it

Climate change presents a significant threat to human lives, health and socioeconomic well-being. Our map shows just how extensive that threat can be. In our view, to dial back the risk, humanity will have to put the brakes on the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions fueling global warming.

Tristan McKenzie, Postdoctoral Researcher in Marine Science, University of Gothenburg; Camilo Mora, Associate Professor of Biology, University of Hawaii, and Hannah von Hammerstein, Ph.D. Candidate in Geography and Environmental Science, University of Hawaii

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Environmental groups call for air monitoring, home air filtration systems in Little Village two years after botched implosion

Read the full story in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Environmental community groups issued a list of demands Monday as they continue to seek answers about the demolition of a smokestack at the former Crawford Coal Plant.

Senate passes Inflation Reduction Act, energy incentives

Read the full story at Environment + Energy Leader.

The United States Senate has passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which includes more than $369 billion for energy programs.

While there were some adjustments made to the bill, the energy elements remained intact during a special weekend session that included 16 consecutive hours of debate ultimately resulting in the final vote. The Democrat-backed legislation, which includes the largest energy and climate investment in the nation’s history, passed along party lines 51-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris providing the tie-breaking vote.

EPA updates State Energy and Environment Guide to Action

EPA’s State Energy and Environment Guide to Action  offers real-world best practices to help states design and implement policies that reduce emissions associated with electricity generation and energy consumption. The guide is a comprehensive EPA resource designed to help state officials draw insights from other states’ implementation experiences and policy innovations to help meet their own state’s climate, environment, energy, and equity goals.

Each chapter covers a unique policy topic, provides descriptions and a regulatory landscape of the featured policy, explains its environmental, energy, health, and equity benefits, highlights how states have approached key design and implementation issues, and shares best practices based on state experiences.

EPA is updating the guide in phases, with each updated chapter reflecting significant state regulatory and policy developments since its original publication in 2015.

To date, EPA has revised the following five chapters on key utility policies that states can pursue to support clean energy and energy efficiency:

Forthcoming chapter updates will include grid modernization, appliance standards, clean generation requirements, and lead by example policies, among others.

Please sign up to be notified when future chapters are released.

Exploring support for climate justice policies in the United States

Read the full story from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

This analysis is based on existing survey data and is not a comprehensive study of public attitudes towards climate justice. Environmental and climate justice are broad concepts that incorporate many more national, state, and local-level policies and practices than are examined here. Most public opinion research on public support for environmental policies has not focused on justice dimensions, but a few other organizations have also conducted research on support for some climate justice policies and concepts, and our own past work has explored climate change beliefs, attitudes and actions among communities of color in the United States. The current study contributes an overview of Americans’ support for several federal policies that are aligned with climate justice goals.

USC chemists create greener research labs

Read the full story from the University of Southern California.

Professors are implementing sustainable processes and using equipment that generates less heat — and that’s just the start.

‘Let’s try something new’ meets the national housing squeeze

Read the full story at Stateline.

High rents and a limited inventory of available homes plague many states, driving up prices and contributing to homelessness. Nationwide, there’s an estimated shortage of 3.8 million housing units. Finding a way to make homes more affordable and accessible is the No. 1 priority in many jurisdictions, including Boise. Boise lacks 13,000 homes necessary to meet demand, according to an analysis by Up For Growth looking at how the nation’s housing shortage ballooned from 2012 to 2019.

Efforts throughout the country include updating zoning regulations to allow for denser development, and even spurring the construction of manufactured homes. More cities and states also are permitting accessory dwelling units, or ADUs—smaller secondary cottages or in-law apartments on a lot or within a single-family home.

As organics depackager equipment market grows, so do concerns over microplastics contamination

Read the full story at Waste Dive.

Companies like Vanguard Renewables are investing millions to facilitate commercial organics recycling as researchers and regulators work to keep PFAS and microplastics out of the equation.