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Advocates hope to expand ban on reef-harming sunscreens

Lawmaker working on bill to outlaw certain chemicals in conservation areas

The sunscreen display at Honolua Store features only reef-safe products in January, after the law banning sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate went into effect. The Hawaii lawmaker behind the bill is hoping to expand the list of banned chemicals and extend special protections to marine conservation districts on Maui and other islands. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Passing a law to ban reef-harming sunscreens was half the battle, but the lawmaker behind the bill and a researcher looking into sunscreen chemicals say expansion of the ban and protection for marine conservation districts on Maui and other islands are on the horizon.

“This is a huge issue for me personally,” said state Sen. Mike Gabbard of Oahu, who authored the legislation that went into effect on Jan. 1 banning the sale in the state of sunscreens that contain the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. “I consider our coral reefs a part of our community, so it’s important that we take care of our community.”

However, Gabbard said, “our job is far from over.”

Gabbard and Craig Downs, executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, spoke on the effectiveness of current sunscreen use laws as more and more people frequent Hawaii’s beaches, next steps toward enforcement and how the community can help protect the environment, during the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council’s “Know Your Ocean Speaker Series” Wednesday night via Zoom.

“The truth is, our coral reefs are in danger and the question is, what are we going to do about it?” Gabbard said.

Without intervention, public education, workshops and government policies, the environment will continue to collapse, said Downs, whose research about sunscreen chemicals and their role in coral reef decline was instrumental in creating a movement toward using safer personal care products.

“Public education influences consumer choices and consumer choices and preferences can affect retail policy,” Downs said.

Relying on the honor system and marketing “goodwill” slogans are not as effective as implementing laws and regulations that will “ensure that these changes are permanent and persistent,” he added.

Gabbard, Downs and others have been working to introduce a bill in the 2022 legislative session that would ban a longer list of reef-harming sunscreen chemicals at four major Marine Life Conservation Districts, including Kealakekua Bay, Honolua Bay, Manele, Molokini and the Ahihi-Kinau Natural Area Reserve.

Gabbard said that this effort is inspired by action that began in 2020 on Hawaii island, where the state Department of Land and Natural Resources issued new requirements that commercial vessels permitted to operate in Kealakekua Bay cannot use products containing oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate and nanoparticles.

“What we want to do is take that success at Kealakekua Bay, make it official, and build upon that momentum further,” said Gabbard, who also serves as chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Environment. “We’re still working out the details. . . . With your help, input and support, this bill might end up on the governor’s desk and get signed into law just like our sunscreen bill did in 2018.”

The lawmaker also plans to reintroduce Senate Bill 132 in the next session that bans the sale, offer for sale or distribution in the state of any sunscreen that contains reef-harming chemicals avobenzone or octocrylene, or both, without a prescription issued by a licensed health care provider.

Because the current sunscreen law focuses on retailers, it does not restrict visitors or residents from bringing or purchasing products from out of state, and so there won’t be “beach police roaming the beaches asking to see your tube of sunscreen and writing you a ticket if you’re not in compliance,” Gabbard said.

Regulating and enforcing these laws requires more manpower, time and resources, Gabbard said, and not one department “wanted to take on the responsibility.”

“We’re willing to address that,” he said.

Maui County Council Member Tamara Paltin recently proposed a bill that would amend the current County Code and include the “ban of use and distribution” of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.

The proposal was referred to the Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee.

“I’m excited for this one,” Gabbard said during the webinar. “This is a perfect opportunity to get involved and get your voice heard.”

In the meantime, Gabbard suggested that if any shoppers spot retailers not in compliance, that they take a photo, send it to law enforcement and kindly remind the retailer of the sunscreen law.

Although many stores and brands have eliminated items containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, and communities have made an effort to use safer personal care products, Downs said that there has been a rise in other contaminants, like avobenzone, octisalate or octocrylene, which come with their own environmental hazards.

“Many of those chemicals truly need to be managed and if it means legislatively managed, I think there is a strong argument for that,” Downs said.

For many researchers and scientists, sunscreen pollution is a symptom of an unsustainable visitor industry and coastal development.

“Hawaii is kind of a famous place for overtourism. It’s used abundantly in media,” Downs said. “When you’re looking at thousands upon thousands of people on a beach and in the water, most people think that there’s nothing going on — that there’s no environmental degradation, no environmental effect — it’s just people having a good time enjoying themselves on the beach, but you need to look closer because oftentimes that’s not the case.”

Heavily visited tourist spots worldwide are “degrading tremendously,” he added, and some of the culprits are sunscreen and cosmetic products containing harmful chemicals that enter the water, which are toxic to coral reefs, seagrass beds, fish populations, turtles, limu and other species.

Downs said that oxybenzone and other chemicals have recently been found to bind to microplastics found in sunscreens, creams or other soaps like shampoo and conditioner, which form plastic microbeads in the ocean that corals often enjoy eating like “bubble tea.”

This means they are consuming higher amounts of pesticides, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, making them “much more susceptible to bleaching.”

Once flourishing marine areas are becoming “ecological deserts” through slow degradation, lack of reproduction among species and reduced resilience to climate change, he said.

“There has to be a balance between sustainable tourism and sustainable ecosystems, and so if you don’t have that balance, not only do the ecosystems go away, but the tourists will go away,” he said. “What we’re seeing in these coastal areas that are highly visited by tourists is just a really high death rate (of marine life) and almost no recruitment of the next generation.”

While much of the focus is on environmental impacts, some sunscreens can also be harmful to people, Downs said. When oxybenzone, for example, is absorbed into the skin, it reaches plasma concentrations of up to 209.6 nanograms per milliliter, 419 times above what is safe to avoid cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends no more than 0.5 nanograms per milliliter.

Downs and the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council also said that beachgoers can reduce use of sunscreen or cosmetics containing harmful chemicals by checking the ingredients list on the products and protecting skin with reef-safe mineral creams containing zinc or titanium oxide. They can also block sunlight by wearing a hat, rash guard or T-shirt; staying in the shade; or bringing an umbrella to the beach.

Increasing education through signage at highly trafficked areas or through social media are other ideas to engage the public in making safe choices.

Gabbard said that they will continue to devise solutions that will “best address this critical issue we’re facing today.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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