Lawmakers in Hawaii have approved a bill that would prohibit the sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone, a coral reef-damaging chemical agent.
In recent years, evidence has mounted that some commercially available sunscreens containing oxybenzone, a chemical that filters harmful rays from the sun, may be causing damage to coral reefs.
Healthy coral reefs have a symbiotic relationship with microscopic algae called zooxanthellae. This algae lives in the coral’s tissues, absorbing necessary nutrients from the coral while also providing a food source in return. Exposure to oxybenzone causes the coral to become stressed, which results in the algae leaving the coral.
The algae in coral gives it its vibrant color. When the algae leaves, the coral turns white, a process that scientists have begun calling “bleaching.” Bleached coral does not necessarily immediately die, but it is considerably more susceptible to disease and death.
Hawaii’s decision to ban the sale of these sunscreens has an environmental and economic impact.
Even though reefs only occupy about 1% of the world’s marine environment, 25% of ocean-dwelling species rely on them for survival. Without coral reefs, many of these species are at risk of extinction.
The loss of coral reefs impacts humans as well. Reefs support tourism as well as regional fishing industries. It’s estimated that reefs alone contribute more than $375 billion to the global economy every year.
The measure was introduced to the Hawaii legislature by Senator Mike Gabbard, with an exception being made for medically prescribed sunscreens.
“These chemicals have also been shown to degrade corals’ resiliency and ability to adjust to climate change factors and inhibit recruitment of new corals,” reads the text of the bill.
“Amazingly, this is a first-in-the-world law,” Gabbard said in an interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “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,” Gabbard added. “This will make a huge difference in protecting our coral reefs, marine life, and human health.”