The stuff is not only on our skin: it's in our tap water and lunches
Spare a thought for the male hornyhead turbot. For despite its name, it is
changing gender. And the sunscreens that symbolise bronzed sex appeal may be
partly to blame.
Scientists have found that male hornyhead turbot and English sole, feeding
near sewage outfalls on the Californian coast, are being feminised - and a chemical
found in sunscreens is the likely culprit.
Meanwhile, Swiss researchers have found other suspected gender-bender chemicals
from sun creams and oils building up in fish in their rivers.
Scientists at the University of California, Riverside, found that two-thirds
of the male turbot and sole near a sewage outfall three miles off the surfers'
paradise of Huntington Beach, near Los Angeles, were growing ovary tissue in
their testes. A similar study by the Southern California Coastal Water Research
Project found fish affected all along the coast. The American research is the
first to find sex changes in fish in the open ocean.
Research on the feminising of fish in British rivers by the UK Environment
Agency, exclusively reported in The Independent on Sunday, concluded in 2002
that oestrogen in urine from the contraceptive pill was to blame
But the University of California scientists found that the only culprit they
could "exclusively identify" is oxybenzone, used to protect the skin
from the ultraviolet component of sunlight.
Oxybenzone, which mimics oestrogen's chemical make-up, is washed off tanned
bodies in the shower, passes through sewage works unchanged and settles on the
seabed, where bottom-feeding fish eat it.
The scientists suspect the sunscreens are a contributory factor along with other
pollutants, which they have yet to identify, such as DDT and PCBs. The new Swiss
research, however, shows two other suspected gender-bender substances used in
sunscreen and lip balm - octocrylene and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor - also building
up alarmingly in fish.
They fear that people are being exposed to the chemicals several times over,
first by putting them on their skin, and then injesting them in drinking water
and the fish they eat. But the cosmetics industry denies the chemicals are dangerous,
and says that"sunscreen phobia" could lead to more cancers. For, unlike
other cosmetics, sunscreens unquestionably save lives. About 100,000 new cases
of skin cancer are diagnosed in Britain each year, of which 7,300 are particularly
deadly melanomas that kill more than 1,600 people a year. Cancer Research UK
fears melanoma numbers will treble over the next 30 years.
However, there have been other concerns about potential health effects. Some
clear sunscreens use nanoparticles so small that they can penetrate the skin
and even get into the brain.
There is also concern about a the universal use of sunscreens. By shielding
ourselves from sunlight, we produce less vitamin D, which protects against as
many as 16 different cancers.