Installing a massive water-filled tank full of colorful floral and different species of fish might sound like great way to give your home that
enormous little touch of pizzazz you always envisioned. Or could prove to be a dangerous addition, as some species of floral can emit deadly chemicals.
The Washington Post reports that while poisonings related to in-home coral reefs are rare, they do occur.
Certain species of corals, including zoanthid corals, release potent toxins when they feel they are being attacked by a predator.
The most dangerous of these toxins is palytoxin, a chemical that burns the skin and eyes on contact, while also irritating an individual’s throat and lungs.
This is likely what occurred to an Australian family earlier this year. The Post reports that all seven members of the family were hospitalized after waking in the middle of the night, having trouble breathing.
Authorities believe that when the family cleaned its coral tank that night, the coral reacted by spewing a chemical that spread through the home.
The family’s home had to be quarantined and cleaning teams had to wear breathing apparatuses and hazmat suits to clean the chemical with bleach and vacuuming the remaining particles.
How Did We Get Here?
While it’s not uncommon to find a home with a large tank full of exotic fish, snails, sea horses, and other water animals, a coral reef tank is more unique.
According to the Post, it wasn’t until after the 1980s that home aquariums were able to sustain life aside of fish.
Not content with this, however, companies developed technology and tanks that mimicked the sun and other atmospheric requirements for coral to grow. Once this technology was in place, companies began importing live stony coral, at a rate that grew around 8% each year.
This availability, coupled with the popularity of films like Finding Nemo, and the Post reports the coral business peaked in 2005 when importers brought in 600,000 pieces of live coral into the U.S.
Still, in some cases the Post reports the toxic corals aren’t actually purchased by reef hobbyists, they instead grow from rocks put in tanks.
Knowing The Dangers
Although the import of live coral has decreased since the great recession, plenty of the live aquatic life enters the U.S. each year.
For the most part, the Post reports, these corals don’t undergo comprehensive tests for toxins by the Food and Drug Administration.
For this reason, it’s important for hobbyists — often likened to master gardeners — to understand the dangers of the corals’ toxins.
When the hobby began to grow, those interested in joining the fray turned to groups online, where others exchanged information about their corals and other tank life.
“The sharing of information has really helped,” one hobbyist tells the Post, noting that those that have been dealing with corals for years make it easier for others to get involved.
Additionally, hobbyists attending industry events and conferences have become aware of the dangers through lectures.
Still, the Post reports that even the most seasoned coral growers have fallen victim to the dangerous toxins.
For instance, one reefer who tried to kill a zoanthid by boiling it, was overcome by the emitted chemical. He received a runny nose that turned into coughing fits. He visited the emergency room for treatment, but asthma-like symptoms continue.
In another sad incident, one hobbyist warned others on a forum that his dog had stuck its head into a tub of zoanthid coral. The dog died a few hours later.
The Post notes that no one has died from palytoxin inhalation.
Outside Of Coral
Palytoxin isn’t relegated to just coral, the Post reports, as the chemical has also been known to be a food contaminant.
For example, in 2000, 11 people in Japan became ill after eating fish. While those individuals recovered, the toxin was linked to the death of a man who ate a tainted crab.
According to scientists, food contamination stems from algae, not corals. That’s not an uncommon occurrence, as an algae named Ostrepsis ovata bloomed in the Mediterranean Sea sickening about 200 people in Italy.