Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

The Hawaii legislature has passed a ban on sunscreens containing chemicals believed to harm coral reefs.



Hawaii is the first state to prohibit the sale and distribution of sunscreen with oxybenzone and octinoxate, which scientists have discovered contributes to coral bleaching when washed off in the ocean.

The state legislature considered a similar bill in 2017 but it stalled out before passage. This year it made it through both houses, and now awaits the signature of Gov. David Ige. The new rules are not set to take effect until Jan. 1, 2021.

Reefs around the globe, from Australia's Great Barrier Reef to Haunama Bay in Hawaii and off Florida's southern coast, have suffered serious damage in the last few years after consecutive bleaching events. Bleaching occurs when corals are stressed by warmer-than-average water temperatures and other factors, and the colorful photosynthetic algae that live inside, zooxanthellae, are expelled. The coral cannot survive without the symbiotic relationship, and when ocean temperatures do not return to normal quickly enough, the reefs may die. Pollution, including sewage and agricultural runoff, are serious threats to reef heath, as well, but switching sunscreens is one way swimmers and those who enjoy the ocean can have an impact, proponents of the ban say.

A 2015 study from the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, a nonprofit research group, indicated oxybenzone, a common UV-absorbing chemical found in sunscreens, can poison coral in multiple ways. It contributes to bleaching, hinders reproductive growth and causes coral deformities.

Researchers estimate 14,000 tons of sunscreen infiltrates the world's oceans each year, with highest concentrations in popular, accessible reef areas in Hawaii and the Caribbean. A 2015 Haereticus survey of Trunk Bay beach on St. John found anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 swimmers daily, and estimated over 6,000 pounds of sunscreen was deposited on the reef each year. At Hanauma Bay on Oahu, which attracts an average of 2,600 swimmers daily, an average of 412 pounds of sunscreen was deposited daily on the reef.

The Hawaii hospitality industry has jumped into the campaign to preserve the Aloha State's reefs and spread the word about reef-safe sunscreens. Hawaiian Airlines has been distributing samples of reef-safe sunscreen on flights bound for the islands.

Aqua-Aston Hospitality launched the "For Our Reef" program in 2017. The company is installing reef-safe sunscreen dispensers on their properties, offering sunscreen trade-ins, and organizing beach cleanups and awareness campaigns.

"This is a huge win for Hawaii. We are proud of the role Aqua-Aston Hospitality played to raise the volume on this issue, by lending our voice and bringing a greater awareness that by choosing the right sunscreen it's possible to protect your skin and help preserve the reef," Theresa van Greunen of Aqua-Aston Hospitality said. "We have a responsibility to take positive steps  to create a culture of sustainability and protect the Hawaii we love."

At the end of 2017, Napili Kai Beach Resort on one of Maui's reef-protected bays on the north side of the island introduced an educational program to encourage visitors to use reef-safe sunscreens. The resort offers each guest a free sample of reef-safe sunscreen, made with minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that are non-nano, particles larger than 100 nanometers, because anything smaller can be ingested by corals. They also offers coupons for the purchase of reef-safe sunscreen and educational materials.
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