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Avoid Red Tide in Your Home Aquarium

Avoid Red Tide in Your Home Aquarium

In the 1976 thriller, Marathon Man, the bad guy Szell (Laurence Olivier) is torturing Babe (Dustin Hoffman) and repeatedly asks his victim, “Is it safe yet?” to find out if he can cash in some stolen diamonds.

If you’re cleaning your home aquarium, or if you work in a store that sells fish and coral, that’s a question you might want to ask yourself, too, or risk some pretty torturous (or even lethal) symptoms, including fever, respiratory distress, nausea and achiness.  

According to the CDC, in Alaska alone between 2012 and 2014 there were at least 10 reported cases of palytoxin poisoning caused by exposure to a type of coral, zoanthid, found in home aquariums. And frequent incidences in Europe recently lead Italian researchers to confirm the hazard the coral poses.

Many marine hobbyists may be aware of Palythoa zoanthid’s potential hazards -- but fall victim anyway. That’s because as the coral grows it attaches to rocks and the sides of the aquarium and can be tough to remove. Scraping, cutting, applying chemicals or just using hot water to clean the tank can release the nasty palytoxins.

So if you have coral in your tank, avoid your home-made Red Tide. Whenever cleaning the tank or handling the coral, wear protective eye gear, gloves and a mask or ventilator to avoid breathing it in. Keep the coral contained in the tank; small crumbs can fall onto the floor and spread the irritant. And don’t let children handle it. Then it will be safe already!

Medically reviewed in October 2018.

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