Home coral reefs potentially dangerous
At an SECAUCUS, expo called Reef-A-Palooza, 4,000 coral reef aquarium hobbyists gathered to swap fragments of coral and ogle $100-a-pop sea horses. The burble of water pumps and commerce filled the convention hall. Sellers hawked glittery clams and other odd creatures, some spineless but all vibrant. Reef-A-Palooza had the atmosphere of a carnival, except the animals in baggies were no mere goldfish.
Reefers, as coral reef keepers sometimes call themselves, browsed through wares like Ultra Blasto coral, which looks like a head of psychedelic broccoli. A Katherine’s Fairy Wrasse supermale fish, a torpedo of orange and white, could be yours for $150.
Thanks to recent advances in aquarium technology, you, too, can grow a coral reef in your basement. The best of these aquariums look like sections of the sea floor that were spirited away from the ocean: Fish dart above anemones. Coral polyps unfold like cherry blossoms.
But sometimes, the coral attacks.
If provoked, certain zoanthid corals, a relative of sea anemones, erupt with one of the most potent toxins ever discovered.
In May, members of a family living in a suburb of Adelaide, Australia, scrubbed the coral tank in their home and went to bed. A few hours later they awoke, struggling for air. The family was “quite unwell with breathing difficulties,” said Daniel Hamilton, a spokesman for the South Australian Country Fire Service. All of seven members of the household were hospitalized, the youngest child in the intensive care unit.
Within an hour, Hamilton said, emergency responders traced the incident to the scrubbed coral. The animal reacted to the cleaner as though it were a predator, spewing a chemical that spread through the house as an aerosol.
Officials on the scene quarantined the building. “This isn’t the sort of thing we’ve dealt with before,” Hamilton said. It took three hazmat removal groups wearing breathing apparatuses and suits to clean up the mess, Australian newspaper ABC reported. They neutralized the toxin with bleach and vacuumed up the particles.
Corals sold for home aquariums have not been comprehensively tested for toxins, said Johnathan Deeds, a Food and Drug Administration scientist. “We know not all species can produce toxins but at least several species can in high amounts.”
The most dangerous chemical compound released by coral is called a palytoxin. It burns skin and eyes on contact, and if it gets into the air, the chemical can wreak havoc on throats and lungs.
Such poisonings are rare. “I don’t want to create panic,” said Aurelia Tubaro, a toxicologist at the University of Trieste in Italy. That said, she considers the risk of palytoxin poisonings to be underestimated. “We have to inform people.”
A pair of chemists discovered palytoxin decades ago when they followed the tale of “Limu-make-oHana,” a Hawaiian legend that roughly translates as “deadly seaweed of Hana.” The myth involves a sinister figure who has a shark mouth. A textbook on marine toxins cites the 19thcentury Hawaiian historian Davida Malo: The figure was a shark god, and a toothy maw grew between his shoulders.
In 1961, Philip Helfrich, a professor at the University of Hawaii on Oahu, and a graduate student named John Shupe, persuaded fishermen to take them to the tidal pool in the legend. There they found, not seaweed, but a species of anemone, which they named Palythoa toxica.