Home co­ral reefs po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Ben Guar­ino Sal­wan Ge­orges, The Wash­ing­ton Post

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.

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