What are the toxicity thresholds of chemical pollutants for tropical reef-building corals? A systematic review


Tropical coral reefs cover only ca. 0.1% of the Earth’s surface but harbour exceptional marine biodiversity and provide vital ecosystem services to millions of people living nearby. They are currently threatened by global (e.g. climate change) and local (e.g. chemical pollution) stressors that interact in multiple ways. While global stressors cannot be mitigated by local actions alone, local stressors can be reduced through ecosystem management. Here, we aimed to systematically review experimental studies assessing the toxicity of chemical pollutants to tropical reef-building corals to generate accessible and usable knowledge and data that can be used to calculate measurement endpoints in ecological risk assessment. From the quantitative estimates of effects, we determined toxicity thresholds as the highest exposures tested at which no statistically significant adverse effects were observed, and we compared them to regulatory predicted no effect concentrations for the protection of marine organisms, to assess whether these reference values are indeed protective of corals.


The evidence was taken from a systematic map of the impacts of chemicals arising from human activity on tropical reef-building corals published in 2021. All studies in the map database corresponding to the knowledge cluster “Evidence on the ecotoxicological effects of chemicals on corals” were selected. To identify subsequently published literature, the search was updated using a subset of the search string used for the systematic map. Titles, abstracts and full-texts were screened according to the criteria defining the selected cluster of the map. Because the eligibility criteria for the systematic review are narrower than the criteria used to define the cluster in the systematic map, additional screening was performed. Studies included were critically appraised and each study was rated as low, unclear, medium, or high risk of bias. Data were extracted from the studies and synthesised according to a strategy dependent on the type of exposure and outcome.


Review Findings

The systematic review reports the known effects of chemical exposures on corals from 847 studies corresponding to 181 articles. A total of 697 studies (161 articles) were included in the quantitative synthesis and 150 studies (50 articles) in the narrative synthesis of the findings. The quantitative synthesis records the effects of 2706 exposure concentrations-durations of 164 chemicals or mixtures of chemicals, and identifies 105 toxicity thresholds corresponding to 56 chemicals or mixtures of chemicals. When toxicity thresholds were compared to reference values set for the protection of marine organisms by environmental agencies, the reference values appear to be protective of corals for all but three chemicals assessed: the metal copper and the pesticides diuron and irgarol 1051.



This open-access database of known ecotoxicological effects of chemical exposures on corals can assist managers in the ecological risk assessment of chemicals, by allowing easy determination of various ecotoxicological thresholds. Several limitations of the toxicity tests synthesised here were noted (in particular the lack of measurement of effective concentrations for more than half of the studies). Overall, most of the currently available data on coral toxicity should be replicated independently and extended to corals from less studied geographical regions and functional groups.



Contamination, Hazard assessment, Hermatypic, Pollution, Scleractinian, Toxicity endpoints

In progress