Hawaii Governor Signs Ban on Reef-Damaging Sunscreens

(CN) – Hawaii became the first state in the nation to ban some sunscreens containing ingredients shown to be damaging to key marine habitats.

Governor David Ige signed SB 2471 into law, barring the sale and distribution of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which scientists believe damage coral reefs.

“Studies have documented the negative impact of these chemicals on corals and other marine life. Our natural environment is fragile, and our own interaction with the earth can have lasting impacts. This new law is just one step toward protecting the health and resiliency of Hawaii’s coral reefs,” Ige said when signing the bill into law Tuesday.

The law has earned praise from environmental sectors and condemnation from business groups, trade associations and also some in the health care sector – dermatologists in particular – who say the law may dissuade beachgoers from applying sunscreen at all, increasing the risk of short-term problems like sunburn and long-term issues including skin cancer.

“Today the health, safety and welfare of millions of Hawaii residents and tourists has been severely compromised by the passage of SB 2571 that will ban at least 70 percent of the sunscreens on the market today, based on weak science blaming sunscreens for damage to coral reefs,” the Consumer Healthcare Products Association said in a statement Tuesday. “This irresponsible action will make it more difficult for families to protect themselves against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, and it is contrary to the many concerns expressed by Hawaii’s medical doctors, dermatologists, and public health experts.”

The association represents companies like Johnson & Johnson, which manufactures the Neutrogena line of sunscreen products.

Dr. Ku’ulei Rodgers conducting coral bleaching survey. (Photo: Keisha Bahr)

The bill was also opposed by the Hawaii Medical Association.

But environmental advocates say the measure is necessary after a 2015 study found oxybenzone, which filters UV rays, was found in high concentrations around coral reefs in Hawaii and the Caribbean. The study said the chemical is responsible for killing coral reefs and causing DNA damage in the organisms during their larval stage.

The study found about 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion ends up in and around coral reefs every year.

The result is a significant decline in coral reefs around the world, scientists argued, with the hazards the most pronounced at reefs popular with tourists.

“The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” said researcher Craig Downs, one of the authors of the study.

In Hawaii, environmental organizations used the study as a platform to convince lawmakers that serious and immediate action was needed. The law, however, won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2021.

“The half-life of oxybenzone is about 2 1/2 years,” said Lisa Bishop, president of Friends of Hanauma Bay, in a television interview. “So this is very doable. If we start, the bill will help significantly cut back on the amount of pollution in areas.”

The law exempts sunscreen prescribed by doctors and does not include cosmetics. Proponents of the law say there are sunscreen alternatives that do not contain the two harmful chemicals, meaning beachgoers can both stay safe without incurring harm to the reef system in Hawaii.

“In my lifetime, our planet has lost about half its coral reefs,” said Hawaii state Rep. Chris Lee, D-Honolulu. “We’ve got to take action to make sure we can protect the other half as best we can because we know that time is against us.”

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