Nanomaterials that are commonly used in sunscreens and in the paint that coats boat hulls could be wreaking havoc on the ocean.

The tiny particles are believed to be making sea urchin embryos more vulnerable to toxins, which could be bad news for a number of marine environments, the University of California, Davis reported. A recent study was the first to show the common additives nanozinc oxide (which is used in sunscreen and cosmetics) and nanocopper oxide (often seen in electronics and technology) made sea urchin embryos more susceptible to contamination by blocking transporters that would normally shield them from the poison.

"At low levels, both of these nanomaterials are nontoxic," said co-author Gary Cherr, professor and interim director of the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory and an affiliate of the UC Davis Coastal Marine Sciences Institute. "However, for sea urchins in sensitive life stages, they disrupt the main defense mechanism that would otherwise protect them from environmental toxins."

These nanomaterials are about 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair, and can enter the body through the skin's pores as well as ingestion and inhalation. The potentially harmful particles are increasing in use among electronics, medicine and technology. They have been used for applications such as making energy-efficient batteries and clean up oil spills. Despite their widespread use, very little research has been conducted on the nanomaterial's impact on the environment.

"The hope is the science will try to stay abreast of the use of nanomaterials so there actually can be safe design," Cherr said. "The nanotechnology industry wants to come up with designs that are practical but still safe for the environment and human health. The UC center is trying to help fine-tune this."

The findings were reported in a recent edition of the journal Environmental Science and Technology,