Water concentrations of chemicals are 30 times higher than the level that is considered safe.
Hawaii is calling for a ban on sunscreen that contains certain chemicals as it has been heavily linked to destroying corals in the ocean. Although health warnings are continuously urging beach goers to lather on the sun protection cream, as people are entering into the sea, the sunscreen is ending up in the water which then bleaches coral, stunts its growth, and sometimes even completely kills it. Senator Will Espero presented a bill to the state congress on January 20 that would ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate (except under medical prescriptions) in Hawaii, due to their use seriously damaging tropical coral reefs, according to recent reports. Espero argued that a ban is crucial to maintaining the health of the coral reefs which are an important tourist attraction on which Hawaii’s tourism trade relies upon.
The way that sunscreen works is by using particular filters, either chemical or mineral, to block out the radiation from the sun that reaches people’s skin. These chemical filters are very damaging to sea life when they wash off the skin into the ocean whilst people are swimming, surfing, spearfishing, or even using a beach shower. The reports come following a study where researchers measured the oxybenzone in Hawaiian waters and found that the water concentrations are 30 times higher than the level that is considered safe for corals. According to Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources, “[These chemicals] cause deformities in coral larvae (planulae), making them unable to swim, settle out, and form new coral colonies. It also increases the rate at which coral bleaching occurs. This puts coral reef health at risk, and reduces resiliency to climate change.”
Craig Downs from the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia, whose research on stunted coral growth has heavily influenced Espero’s bill, also commented saying, “Oxybenzone — it kills [coral]. It turns them into zombies if it doesn’t kill them outright. It makes them sterile and you do not get coral recruitment.” Although the bill is being discussed by Hawaii’s Senator, the problem is not unique to the region of Hawaii. Studies have shown that around 80 percent of the corals in the Caribbean Sea have died over the past 40 years. There are many contributing factors to the cause of this which include temperature anomalies, overfishing, coral predators, coastal runoffs, and pollution from cruise ships and other vessels that affect coral health, however, an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash off annually into the world’s oceans, which is a serious matter that is only making the situation worse.
Since the announcement of the proposed bill, Espero has been met with resistance from sunscreen manufacturers, including L’Oréal, who claim that the evidence that has been gathered is not yet strong enough to justify a full ban on sunscreen that contains the harmful chemicals. Despite the negative response, the Senator insists that he has public support for his bill. Scientific American quotes him saying, “We have advocates and science on our side. Fishermen, boat owners, sailors, ocean-sports enthusiasts, ocean-tour operators and environmentalists rely on the ocean for recreation and jobs. Opponents will be out there, but supporters as well.” The Environmental Working Group has a guide to safe sunscreens that can be used as alternatives to the harmful ones that are killing the corals in the oceans.
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