HONOLULU — The House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection on Tuesday passed a bill that would prohibit the sale of sunscreens containing the chemical oxybenzone.
House Bill 600 was introduced by Rep. Nicole Lowen (District 6, Kailua-Kona, Holualoa), who said she did so in response to recent studies that have concluded that oxybenzone disrupts coral development and growth.
“Our reefs are an essential economic driver of our tourism industry, they sustain our fish populations for fishermen, and are home to many species found nowhere else in the world,” Lowen said. “Safe, effective, and affordable alternatives to oxybenzone are available already. How can we, in good conscience, continue to needlessly allow the use of this chemical that we know causes damage to coral?”
HB600 would make the sale of products containing the chemical a petty misdemeanor.
“I signed on to this bill because this is a conversation that needs to begin,” said Kauai Rep. Dee Morikawa.
But Morikawa said she has concerns about the sudden prohibition and penalties, especially since the industry has so many products containing oxybenzone for sale.
“Through the legislative process, we can discuss and understand the problem and figure out a way of educating the public about the environmental consequences, while at the same time, acknowledge (that) the use of sunscreens is necessary for sun protection,” she said.
On Kauai, marine biologists said the anecdotal evidence shows bays with calmer waters and slower currents are more affected by pollutants, like oxybenzone, which comes off the bodies of swimmers.
“This is especially true at beaches with showers and toilets with septic systems in the beach parks,” said Carl Berg, marine biologist with the Kauai chapter of Surfrider.
He continued: “While most of these chemicals probably have harmful effects on marine life, initial studies of oxybenzone in suntan products have indicated that it harms corals in the sensitive periods of their life cycle.”
The 2015 study was published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology by Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, a nonprofit scientific organization.
Citing that study, HB600, a bill banning the sale of sunscreens and other products that contain the chemical passed through the House committee. The committee also moved a bill forward that would allow the continued use of oxybenzone products, but impose new labeling requirements.
According to the study, exposing baby corals to oxybenzone damages their DNA and acts as an endocrine disruptor, which “causes the coral to encase itself in its own skeleton, leading to death.”
The study also indicated oxybenzone induces coral bleaching.
Concentrations of the chemical in the waters around Hawaii were between 800 parts per trillion and 19 parts per billion, according to the study, and the lowest concentration to see toxicity effect is 62 parts per trillion.
“Oxybenzone pollution predominately occurs in swimming areas but could occur on reefs 5 to 20 miles from the coastline as a result of submarine freshwater seeps which can be contaminated with sewage,” the study says.
While the Legislature considers a ban, sunscreen manufacturers said not all of their products contain oxybenzone, but the products that do contain the chemical are labeled.
Edgewell Personal Care, makers of Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic sunscreens, for instance, offers a range of sunscreens, “some of which contain FDA-approved amounts of oxybenzone as an active ingredient to provide broad spectrum sun protection to wearers.”
“We are committed to providing consumers with safe and high quality sun care products, with the smallest environment impact possible,” said a spokesman from Edgewell Personal Care, makers of Banana Boat and Hawaiian Tropic sunscreens.
Out at Makua, also known as Tunnel’s Beach, a popular tourist destination, Hanalei-based marine biologist Terry Lilley said the strong current dilutes and washes away the sunscreen chemicals almost immediately.
“There are many non-toxic ‘reef friendly’ sunscreens you can purchase these days,” Lilley said.
Raspberry seed oil is the newest go-to for sun protection for Kapaa marine biologist, Katherine Muzik, who also avoids sunscreens with zinc because “zinc is toxic to marine life.”
“(Raspberry seed oil) has an amazing SPF 50 and it doesn’t spray on other people,” Muzik said. “And it helps smooth wrinkles. It’s safe and organic. Another alternative is to wear a hat and a shirt.”
Oxybenzone has been an FDA approved sunscreen ingredient since 1980.