Sunscreen chemicals found in seafood pose health risks: study

October 05, 2018 18:07
Dr Kelvin Leung of HKBU said the UV filters were found to have caused abnormalities and deaths in the offspring of zebrafish by entering the food chain. Photo: HKBU

Harmful chemicals used in sunscreen products have been found in local seawater and seafood samples, raising fears that they could end up in the human body and pose health risks such as infertility or even cancer, a research team from the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) said.

The chemicals include ultraviolet filters, which can absorb or block UV radiation and are extensively used in personal care products such as sunscreens, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

Led by Dr. Kelvin Leung Sze-yin, associate professor of the HKBU Department of Chemistry, the team began in 2013 to collect seawater samples from 30 locations off the Hong Kong coast as well as fish, shrimp, mussels and other marine organisms from seven local aquaculture farms around Hong Kong.

The results showed that concentration of UV filters was higher in Sai Kung, Tuen Mun and Hong Kong Island South, where there are more beaches and sewage facilities, than elsewhere in the territory.

The chemicals were found to have caused abnormalities and deaths in the offspring of zebrafish. And since the genetic structure of zebrafish resembles that of humans, researchers concluded that these contaminants could pose a risk to humans as well.

The UV filters, which are absorbed by marine life, could enter the food chain and affect humans, the researchers said.

Leung said UV filters in sunscreens are discharged into the sea either directly by being washed off with seawater or indirectly through the discharge of wastewater, thereby posing a threat to marine organisms and the ecosystem.

He said UV filters are poisonous chemicals that can disturb the human endocrine system. They could affect fertility and even cause cancer, especially breast cancer, if they are absorbed by the body for a long period of time, he added.

Leung is worried that the harmful effects of UV filters may become more obvious among the next generation.

He called for tighter regulations to cover the use of chemicals in personal care products and recommended instead the use of natural, mineral-based sunscreens, such as those containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

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