At the recent "Saltwater U Two" held in Atlanta, Georgia I was presented for the second time with a kind gift from my hosts - issues of the classic magazine "The Aquarium" from the 1930s. As might be expected, most of the articles and advertisements concern freshwater aquariums, but a few deal with marine issues (Figure 1). I have a penchant for old literature dealing with corals, coral reefs and aquariums, and I find great pleasure in reading the variation in the more formal and often flowery language of the past. I also am both amused and often impressed with the state of knowledge from these times and earlier. More fun than reading the articles in "The Aquarium," though, is reading the product advertisements.

I have long been a skeptic of aquarium products. This stems mostly from knowing that in the past, and even continuing today, very little regulation, oversight or standards apply in the production of products for the pet industry. Reading certain novels by John Steinbeck gives a glimpse of what ingredients were used for pet food - and still are. It is also the case that the standards for aquarium products are significantly lower than they are for companion animals that may be subject to veterinary standards for at least some products used to care for, say, dogs or cats. Fish are vertebrates and minimal standards exist for them in some cases, but generally are not enforced or even considered. Invertebrates are shown even less concern by the public. Really, the only people who care about the health of marine invertebrates are researchers, conservationists and aquarists. Stony corals may be an exception because of their status under the auspices of CITES, although once imported to the ornamental trade, there are no standards of quality or "truthiness" of which I am aware (to use one of comedian Steven Colbert's terms). Therefore, in order for me to believe that an aquarium product does what it claims, I require proof beyond the now infamous quote of aquarists the world over that states, "My tank has never looked better." Unfortunately, rarely is any proof provided, and even then most proof comes from the manufacturers themselves, who are hardly credible as they are, or are viewed as, biased even if the proof has integrity behind it.

Figure 1. A photo of a coral collector removing Florida corals for curios or aquarium decorations from a 1936 issue of "The Aquarium" magazine. I especially like the line that reads, "No matter what your desires are…we can supply your wants." Has anything changed?

Examples of Trade Advertisements

The following passages are quotes from various advertisements from aquarium magazines and manufacturers describing their products.

"The most picturesque rock in the world for your aquarium. Keeps your aquarium water neutral all the time. Stimulates the growth of your aquarium plants. Does not contain any substance harmful to fish and plant life like other aquarium ornaments. Gives off oxygen in your aquarium. Different shapes give individuality to your aquarium. No two rocks are…alike. On account of its sponge like formation, the rock is only slightly heavier than the volume of water it displaces so that it does not add any more pressure on the bottom of your aquarium."

"Treats cotton-like fungal infections, and both internal and external bacterial infections….a safe and natural remedy; prevents the development of resistant strains of disease-causing organisms. Will not discolor water, affect biological filter, or pH during treatment."

"…contains an elemental iodine complex that protects slime coats while safely and gently cleaning corals. It is effective against bacteria, fungus, and protozoan infections with less risk of toxicity to corals. It may be used either as a preventative when there is no sign of disease, or to remedy diseased specimens."

"You may never need to clean the aquarium again. Benefits both fresh and salt water aquariums. Reduces water changes by up to 75%. Eliminates cloudy and yellowing water. Dramatically reduces green algae growth. Keeps water crystal clear year round. Stabilizes pH while increasing O.R.P. Relieves stress and improves health. Prevents and helps cure all diseases while sustaining appetites during infestations. Stimulates blood cells with concentrated O2 to maintain healthier immune systems."

"With scientifically recognized immunostimulants. Ideal for acclimation of new specimens. Enhances disease resistance in marine and brackish water fishes and invertebrates. Contains beneficial microbes that compete with disease organisms. Discourages reproduction of disease organisms - bacterial, viral and fungal. Enhances benefits of medications and aids them in curing disease. Reduces stress. Aids respiration and gas exchange. Nontoxic to fishes and invertebrates. Not affected by pH, UV and skimmers…not a nutrient or medicament."

"It is collected from rare mud patches, discovered by science years ago, which are found in clear uncontaminated seawater. These patches typically occur at 40 - 50 feet of cool, clear water just off the coral reef….unique in its ability to release essential minerals and vital nutrients that will allow hard and soft corals to flourish whether you are starting a new refugium or topping up your existing one. This product contains all the major and minor trace elements as they naturally occur as well as an elaborate network of 5-100 micron size organisms that are critical for the success with Acropora and other small polyp stony corals."

"…contains anaerobic microorganisms that denitrify the aquarium leading to a pristine home for your fishes and corals. Further proven benefits from the usage….include: reversal of head and lateral line erosion (HLLE) in fishes, restoration and maintenance of fish and coral's health and vibrant colors; compatibility in various types of aquariums (fish-only tanks, coral-only tanks, or small polyped stony (SPS) reef tanks); natural denitrifier."

"A Breakthrough for Hobbyists. No More Guessing. No Protein Skimmer Required. No More Balancing of Chemicals. Reef and Fish Keeping Made Simple. Discus and Tropical Fish Keeping Made Simple. A Simple and Natural Approach to Aquarium Filtration. Achieve Professional Results With No Prior Experience. Prevents and Reverses Head and Lateral Line Erosion (HLLE)."

"After a very long test period…, we are confident that it is now simple to maintain the extreme natural coloration found in SPS from Fiji, Tonga, The Solomon Islands, and Micronesia. The aquarium water is biologically revived, all the corruptive elements are exported by the skimmer and the (product)…Old or brown SPS will return to their natural color. The tissue will brighten and colors will change to bright and/or metallic appearance. Polyp extension is also significantly increased during the hours of light. A Miracle drug? Perhaps. The time taken to achieve the coloration seen in our own systems can vary up to as much as 9 months and is very much dependant upon the level of contamination in the aquarium. Those who hope to see the effect after a few days, should try something else - this takes time and patience, but the results are very worthwhile…The (product) system is constantly being improved and further developed to offer better value to the home aquarist."

With products such as these available to largely unstudied marine organisms, everyone would have a perfectly healthy and beautiful tank. It would seem to me that there would be no need for veterinarians or doctors; all diseases would be cured. In terms of human medicine and research in all branches of science, we should just stop and contact the manufacturers of these products because, apparently, they have the ability to heal all diseases or create perfect environments. Certainly they can use these abilities, products and research to cure disease in organisms far more well understood than marine organisms. Maybe a cancer cure is available for $19.99 per bottle?

After all, the first "Neutralizer Rock" was available in 1933.

Other products continued in the 1950s, such as Wonder Tonic and Algi-Cure.


Skepticism: questioning the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual; a doubting attitude; even doubting the possibility of real knowledge of any kind.

Am I skeptical of the claims made of the products described above? Indeed I am, and I encourage others to be skeptical of claims made within the aquarium trade. Proof in this hobby is rare, and experimental verification is, of course, required to assert such amazing claims. I am and have been curious about the legal implications of such claims. Not being an attorney, I do not know if there is a legal basis for claims of false advertising. But the definition of false advertising is as follows:

""Any advertising or promotion that misrepresents the nature, characteristics, qualities or geographic origin of goods, services or commercial activities" (Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C.A. § 1125(a))."

Perhaps another relevant definition is one for snake oil, as follows:

"Snake oil: a derogatory term applied to a product whose developers describe it with misleading, inconsistent, or incorrect technical statements."

Of Veterinarians and Physicians

Our country is beset with consumer goods all promising to be better than their competitors in one way or another. This is not surprising. We have long turned a jaded ear to toothpaste ads that claim, "Four out of five dentists recommend 'smiley shine' brand." We also mostly roll our eyes at e-mails received from former heads of states of overturned countries who want to deposit millions of dollars into our bank accounts if we just give them our account information, and at the myriad products designed to enlarge our sexual apparatus. We know it's not the truth. I can almost be assured that somewhere there is a message board whose users debate whether or not their "member" actually did grow in size, with proponents and opponents heatedly arguing about it.

Interestingly, drugs for both human and veterinary use, in addition to those used in clinical research, must be rigorously tested. Generally, potentially effective compounds are analyzed based on trials or similarities to known effective drugs with similar structure or cellular function. Many research trials and publications are produced before any clinical trials begin. Even after clinical trials, drugs have to be approved by the FDA or appropriate veterinary legislative bodies. Once approval is granted, the drug or product is generally used against a very limited number of parasites or pathogens, often with extensive contraindications, interactions and side effects. For example, from the medical field, the antifungal and anti-protozoal drug amphotericin B is an antifungal with Medline data that state:

“In deciding to use a medicine, the risks of taking the medicine must be weighed against the good it will do. This is a decision you and your doctor will make. For amphotericin B, the following should be considered:

Allergies—Tell your doctor if you have ever had any unusual or allergic reaction to
             amphotericin B. Also tell your health care professional if you are allergic to any
             other substances such as foods, preservatives or dyes.
Pregnancy—Amphotericin B has not been reported to cause birth defects or other
             problems in humans.
Breast-feeding—Amphotericin B has not been reported to cause problems in nursing
Children—Although there is no specific information comparing the use of amphotericin B in
             children to its use in other age groups, this medicine is not expected to cause
             different side effects or problems in children than it does in adults.
Older adults—Many medicines have not been studied specifically in older people.
             Therefore, it may not be known whether they work exactly the same way they do in
             younger adults or if they cause different side effects or problems in older people.
             There is no specific information comparing use of amphotericin B in the elderly
             to use in other age groups.
Other medicines—Although certain medicines should not be used together at all, in other
             cases two different medicines may be used together even if an interaction might
             occur. In these cases, your doctor may want to change the dose, or other
             precautions may be necessary. When you are taking amphotericin B, it is especially
             important that your health care professional knows if you are taking any of the following:
Antineoplastics (cancer medicine) or
Antithyroid agents (medicine for overactive thyroid) or
Azathioprine (e.g., Imuran) or
Chloramphenicol (e.g., Chloromycetin) or
Colchicine or
Cyclophosphamide (e.g., Cytoxan) or
Flucytosine (e.g., Ancobon) or
Ganciclovir (e.g., Cytovene) or
Interferon (e.g., Intron A, Roferon-A) or
Mercaptopurine (e.g., Purinethol) or
Zidovudine (e.g., AZT, Retrovir) or
X-ray treatment—Use of amphotericin B with any of these medicines or x-ray treatment
             may increase the chance of side effects affecting the blood
Bumetanide (e.g., Bumex) or
Carmustine (e.g., BiCNU) or
Cisplatin (e.g., Platinol) or
Combination pain medicine containing acetaminophen and aspirin (e.g., Excedrin) or
             other salicylates (with large amounts taken regularly) or
Cyclosporine (e.g., Sandimmune) or
Deferoxamine (e.g., Desferal) (with long-term use) or
Diuretics (water pills) or
Ethacrynic acid (e.g., Edecrin) or
Furosemide (e.g., Lasix) or
Gold salts (medicine for arthritis) or
Indapamide (e.g., Lozol) or
Inflammation or pain medicine, except narcotics, or
Lithium (e.g., Lithane) or
Other medicine for infection or
Plicamycin (e.g., Mithracin) or
Streptozocin (e.g., Zanosar) or
Tacrolimus (e.g., Prograf) or
Tiopronin (e.g., Thiola)—Using these medicines with amphotericin B may increase the
             risk of side effects affecting the kidneys
Corticosteroids (cortisone-like medicine) or
Corticotropin (ACTH)—Use of amphotericin B with these medicines may cause changes
             in the blood that may increase the chance for heart problems
Digitalis glycosides (heart medicine)—Use of amphotericin B with digitalis medicines
(such as digoxin) may cause changes in the blood that may increase the chance of heart problems
Methotrexate (e.g., Mexate) or
Penicillamine (e.g., Cuprimine)—Using these medicines with amphotericin B may
             increase the risk of side effects affecting the blood and the kidneys
Other medical problems—The presence of other medical problems may affect the use of
             amphotericin B. Make sure you tell your doctor if you have any other medical
             problems, especially: Kidney disease—Amphotericin B may cause side effects
             affecting the kidneys
Along with its needed effects, a medicine may cause some unwanted effects. Although not all of these side effects may occur, if they do occur, they may need medical attention.
Check with your health care professional immediately if any of the following side effects occur:
More common
             With intravenous injection
                         Fever and chills;  headache;  increased or decreased urination;  irregular
                         heartbeat;  muscle cramps or pain;  nausea;  pain at the place of injection; 
                         unusual tiredness or weakness; vomiting 
Less common or rare
             With intravenous injection
                         Blurred or double vision;  convulsions (seizures);  numbness, tingling, pain,
                         or weakness in hands or feet;  shortness of breath, troubled breathing,
                         wheezing, or tightness in chest; skin rash or itching; sore throat and fever; 
                         unusual bleeding or bruising
             With spinal injection
                         Blurred vision or any change in vision; difficult urination; numbness,
                         tingling, pain, or weakness
Other side effects may occur that usually do not need medical attention. These side effects may go away during treatment as your body adjusts to the medicine. However, check with your doctor if any of the following side effects continue or are bothersome:
More common
             With intravenous injection
                         Diarrhea;  headache;  indigestion;  loss of appetite;  nausea or vomiting; 
                         stomach pain
Less common
             With spinal injection
                         Back, leg, or neck pain;  dizziness or lightheadedness;  headache;  nausea or
Other side effects not listed above may also occur in some patients. If you notice any other effects, check with your doctor.”

This is relatively minor compared to many cures that have past clinical trials and are available by prescription or over the counter. For private aquariums and corals, obviously, there are no prescriptions and no real trials for over the counter cures as described above.

In contrast, here's a look at a veterinary product that is being used in aquarium corals, milbemycin oxime, also known as Interceptor, to control the Acropora parasite Tegastes acroporanus. From Novartis and veterinary literature, the following information is provided:

"Milbemycin is an oral medication used as a wormer, heartworm preventive, and to kill certain mites (mange). Doses vary widely depending upon the condition being treated. Do NOT use in doses higher than the heartworm prevention dose in collies or other herding breeds, except under veterinary supervision. For heartworm prevention, follow the testing and dosing schedule recommended by your veterinarian for your geographical area. Side effects are rarely seen but may include depression, lethargy, vomiting, staggering, loss of appetite, diarrhea, seizures, weakness, or excessive salivation. In addition to medications, reducing exposure to mosquitoes will reduce the risk of heartworm infection. The elimination of other parasites must also include sanitation and prevention measures to ensure the pet does not become reinfected."

There are also much more detailed reports for prescribed veterinary drugs.

Ironically, all the medications or methods used in the aquarium trade have few warnings, contraindications or interactions. There are few rational dose levels, no tests to confirm effectiveness, and most products seem to cure virtually everything safely with no effects, except on the vaguely defined multiple and highly diverse types of potential infective agents, with no mention of side effects other than an occasional comment, "Not safe for invertebrates." Is it miraculous that the aquarium trade is so far advanced over the medical and veterinary industries, or do they count on the fact that an unregulated and gullible populace will believe whatever is on the label?


I keep hoping a change is coming; that aquarists will begin to learn and understand that most aquarium products are based on profit and not science; and that deception abounds without fear of retribution, except the loss of some sales. Our hobby has progressed by leaps and bounds through the tireless sharing of information and aquarists' trials of products, methods and equipment. Sadly, these progressions have also incurred an untold number of animal losses and countless millions of dollars wasted on aquarium snake oils; products that have been around now for over 80 years. Is it not time for all of us to become skeptical aquarists and use the true knowledge we have gained and shared with each other, rather than buying into the product descriptions of marketed products with no proof of their claims? Perhaps it is time to convince appropriate agencies and veterinarians to adopt standards of protocols and quality for the products sold for marine ornamentals. I look forward to the day when we actually begin to learn lessons that could have begun at least as early as 1933. Mostly, I look forward to not being made physically sick by the time consuming, senseless and anecdotal debates that continue to pervade the hobby populace at large, so that we can make real steps forward and contribute to the advancement of husbandry and knowledge of species - for ourselves and others who study them, and to conserve them for a bright future for our hobby.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

Reefkeeping Magazine™ Reef Central, LLC-Copyright © 2008

The Skeptical Aquarist by Eric Borneman -