Home aquariums used to pretty much be for fish only. That changed with the advent of LED lights, which allow hobbyists to replicate a tropical sun indoors—without boiling the water in the tank. And so a new industry boomed: A subset of aquarium hobbyists—often called "reefers"—have for the last couple of decades been busy building actual coral reefs in their own homes. But as beautiful as these brilliantly colored tanks can be, they do have a dark side, and the Washington Post peeks into the shadows. It looks at the case of a family of seven in Australia who woke up from their sleep one May night this year to find they were having trouble breathing. The root of their issue: the zoanthid coral in their tank.
Certain zoanthids defend themselves by releasing the powerful toxin palytoxin. In the Australia case, the coral was defending itself from the cleaner the family had used earlier that day to scrub the tank. The coral read the substance as a threat, and the toxin "spread through the house like an aerosol," per the Post. "I don’t want to create panic," one toxicologist in Italy says, but "we have to inform people." Poisonings happen infrequently, with most people suffering skin and eye burns, fevers, or throat and lung problems. Indeed, the Post notes there are no human palytoxin-related deaths on record, though it does cite the case of a pet dog that died 12 hours after submerging its head in a plastic tub containing zoanthids. Read the Post's full article, which explains how the tale of "Limu-make-o-Hana" led to the toxin's discovery, here. (Read more coral reefs stories.)