Hawaii’s State Legislature has approved a bill that would ban the sale and distribution of any sunscreen containing coral-damaging chemicals. All that’s left now is for Governor David Ige to sign it into law. When (and if) he does, the Aloha State will be the first in the US to do so.
“Amazingly, this is a first-in-the-world law,” Democratic State Senator Mike Gabbard, who first proposed the bill, told the Honolulu Star Advertiser in an e-mail. “So, Hawaii is definitely on the cutting edge by banning these dangerous chemicals in sunscreens. When you think about it, our island paradise, surrounded by coral reefs, is the perfect place to set the gold standard for the world to follow. This will make a huge difference in protecting our coral reefs, marine life, and human health.”
The law would come into effect on January 1, 2021, at which point retailers will have to stop stocking and selling sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate unless prescribed by a licensed healthcare professional. These two chemicals are added to sunscreen to filter out cancer-causing UV rays and can be found in products made by several well-known brands, including Hawaiian Tropic, Coppertone, and Banana Boat.
The issue is that they have also been linked to coral bleaching, which is when the symbiotic algae living in the reefs are expelled, turning the coral a ghostly white. This is particularly problematic given that roughly 14,000 tons of sunscreen wind up in reefs around the world every year – a 2015 study has shown that just a single drop of oxybenzone per 4.3 million gallons of water is enough to prove deadly.
The bill also makes references to other studies, which have found that oxybenzone and octinoxate destroys young coral, causes genetic damage to coral and marine wildlife, and reduces corals' tolerance to climate change.
Hawaiian lawmakers may have felt an extra urgency to act after the heatwaves of 2014 and 2015, which left approximately half of state's coral reefs bleached. Not only are reefs an extraordinary example of natural beauty and home to a plethora of unique marine life, but they are also a big moneymaker and can generate billions of dollars for those countries lucky enough to have them. Last year, it was found that coral reefs make $36 billion dollars from tourism.
Now, what's left is to see who will be next to enact a similar law. Maybe Australia – a report in 2016 found that 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef is bleached and 50 percent is either dead or in the process of dying.
"The world was watching. We delivered. Preserve and protect our ocean environment!" State Senator Will Espero said in a tweet.