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Legislators Continue Push to Ban Sunscreen Products Containing Oxybenzone and Octinoxate

Wayne Yoshioka

Legislation to ban certain sunscreen chemicals in Hawai’i stalled in the final days of the 2017 session.  But, state lawmakers are already starting their push to pass the bills next year.  HPR’s Wayne Yoshioka reports.

The chemical, oxybenzone, is an active ingredient in many sunscreen products.  Evidence provided by PhD environmental researcher, Craig Downs, links oxybenzone to the killing of baby coral and eventually entire reef systems in populated areas worldwide.

“We see an effect on coral larvae as low as 62 parts per trillion.  Is it any wonder that we see no baby corals where everybody swims.  There’s not even sea urchins.”

Eight years ago 95 percent of sunscreen products contained 3-six percent oxybenzone.   Downs says the chemical is found in recreational areas statewide where sunscreen use is common.  And it’s found in the water, in sealife, and sand.  He also calculated it’s presence at Hanauma Bay in East O’ahu.

”The American Dermatological Association recommends that people should put on 38 grams of sunscreen per day for two hours.  And if you’re out for 4 hours and that’s what most people’s stay at Hanauma Bay is 4-5 hours, you’re looking at about 78 grams per person.  That comes to 150-thousand pounds of sunscreen per year.  What’s the concentration of oxybenzone assuming 3 percent oxybenzone?  We’re looking at over 2 tons a year of oxybenzone in Hanauma Bay.”

Oxybenzone is also found in plastics.  But, Downs says sunscreen chemicals have been detected on all islands and could be more lethal.

“This is the one that nobody can pronounce.  It’s called octinoxate.  This is actually more toxic than oxibenzone.  And industry knows it so they use less of it.  But they have to use it because it lasts a long time.  Oxybenzone has a half life in seawater of 90 days.  This one, they quit counting after 300 days.  After almost a year.”

Credit Wayne Yoshioka
Friends of Hanauma Bay members also attended the informational meeting.

Downs says there are sunscreens that are oxybenzone free and other options like wearing sun clothes that cut the amount of sunscreen use in half.  Lawmakers can also tax oxybenzone sunscreen products at a higher rate.  But, Friends of Hanauma Bay president, Lisa Bishop, says the coral reefs are disappearing and something needs to be done now.  She also says education is key.

“We have been trying to ask the City and County of Honolulu to institute a proactive sunscreen education program at Hanauma Bay.  Because what they teach these almost a million visitors a year that come to Hanauma Bay will take that information and apply that to their visit at the other parks of O’ahu and the world at large.”

Senator Will Espero introduced legislation last year and intends to continue a push to mitigate sunscreen pollution statewide.

“Last year we had a bill that really went to the very last day.  So that’s a good sign that both the House and Senate are supportive of doing something.  And it’s a matter of educating my colleagues, giving them the right information they need to make an important decision.  The push is still going to be for a ban.”

For HPR News, I’m Wayne Yoshioka.

Wayne Yoshioka
Wayne Yoshioka is an award-winning journalist who has worked in television, print and radio in Hawaiʻi. He also has been on both sides of politics as a state departmental appointee and political/government reporter. He covered Hurricane Iwa (1982) as a TV reporter; was the State Department of Defense/Civil Defense spokesperson for Hurricane Iniki (1992); and, commanded a public affairs detachment in Afghanistan (2006). He has a master's degree in Communication from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and is a decorated combat veteran (Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and 22 other commendation/service medals). He resides in Honolulu.
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