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Council to Consider Measure That Proposes to Prohibit Non-Mineral Sunscreen

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A bill that would prohibit some types of sunscreen on the Big Island in an effort to help protect the environment, especially coral reefs, has garnered the support of hundreds.

Bill 167, the first reading of which is being heard by the Hawai’i County Council during its Wednesday, June 1, meeting would prohibit the sale and use of some types of sunscreen on the Big Island in an effort to help protect the environment, especially coral reefs. (Courtesy photo)

The Hawaiʻi County Council Climate Resilience and Natural Resource Management Committee voted unanimously during its March 17 meeting to send Bill 167 to the Council level with a favorable recommendation. The Council will take up first reading of the bill during its Wednesday, June 1, meeting. The measure was introduced by council members Holeka Inaba and Rebecca Villegas.

Bill 167 seeks to prohibit the sale and distribution of non-mineral sunscreen on the Big Island, unless prescribed by a licensed health care provider, beginning Dec. 1. According to Inaba, non-mineral sunscreens are those that use active ingredients other than titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, and there are numerous brands that produce both types of sunscreen.

“Other sunscreen chemical UV filters, including avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate and octisalate, may harm human health as well as marine life,” Dr. Craig Downs, a toxicologist with the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, said in a press release from The Kohala Center in 2021. “These chemicals are absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and some may remain there for at least three weeks. Some may disrupt our hormones, which can effect thyroid function, development, fertility and more.”

State legislators several years ago took up the issue of sunscreens containing some chemicals found to harm marine life. The Hawaiʻi Legislature in 2018 passed Act 104, banning the sale of sunscreens containing two common chemicals — oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are harmful to coral reefs. That law went into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

Inaba said Bill 167 was was proposed by students at Innovations Public Charter School in Kona after they learned about a similar measure passed by the Maui County Council. He and Villegas introduced the measure to support efforts protecting the environment, especially the island’s shorelines.

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“It’s an important issue for all islands being that we appreciate Hawaiʻi’s special climate and environment,” Inaba told Big Island Now in an email. “It is our kuleana to protect and preserve it as stewards of this land.”

Bill 167 is modeled after a similar measure passed by the Maui County Council last year. That measure, Bill 135, garnered unanimous support from the council and Mayor Michael Victorino, who signed it into law. It takes effect as Ordinance 5306 this October.

Kelly Takaya King, Maui County Council member and chair of the Maui County Council Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee, introduced Maui’s sunscreen bill and offered strong support for Bill 167 in written testimony to the Hawaiʻi County Council’s climate committee.

“We know that our reefs and ecosystems are facing unprecedented stress from climate change and human activity. At the same time, we know that these threatened reefs are essential for cultural practices, coastal resilience, economic activity and biodiversity,” King wrote in her testimony. “Reefs also provide opportunities for scenic beauty, recreation and inspiration. Our planet’s invaluable reefs are critically threatened, and it is incumbent upon us as policymakers to do everything we can to ensure their survival.”

She said Bill 167 is an opportunity to revitalize and protect coral reefs, and passing it supports the environmental and `aina-based values of Hawai`i County and the state. King added that the Big Island and Maui are sister islands, surrounded by the same ocean. By uniting, the two counties can magnify their efforts.

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“Although I’m a Maui resident, we share the same ocean, including larval fish and corals that travel between our islands, so mahalo for having the courage to address this important issue,” Jeff Bagshaw, information and outreach specialist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife’s Maui Nui Branch, said in his written testimony in support of Bill 167.

Bagshaw said the measure will remove hazardous materials that have plagued the islands for decades.

Hawai’i County Council member Holeka Inaba speaks during a past council meeting. (Screenshot from video)

“It does what we have been unable to do with thousands of hours of outreach and education,” he wrote. “It recognizes that relying on consumers to make the right choices has not been enough, especially in the face of advertising campaigns and green-washing marketing.”

Bagshaw said the issue is more than just about reefs for pretty fish to see when snorkeling, it’s an environmental justice matter. He highlighted three studies since 2013 that showed chemical compounds from sunscreen present in marine life such as Loggerhead sea turtles off the coast of Italy, several freshwater fish species in China and dolphins off the coast of Brazil. All of those animals had consumed other marine animals that contained the chemicals.

The chemicals bioaccumulate and move up the food chain, eventually finding their way into humans.

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“These compounds are showing up in the tissues of people who have never used sunscreens,” Bagshaw wrote.

Brian Guadagno, founder of Huntington Beach, Calif.-based mineral sunscreen company Raw Elements, also supports the measure and said in his written testimony that non-mineral sunscreen inhibits coral growth and degrades the integrity of reefs.

“This ordinance also supports public health, safety and well-being of humans as well as our environment by restricting the sale and distribution of non-mineral sunscreens,” Guadagno wrote. “The ordinance will follow (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s) guidance in which all non-mineral sunscreens are no longer classified as GRASE — generally regarded as safe and effective.”

Jeff Boehm, chief external relations officer for The Marine Mammal Center, agreed that chemicals found in non-mineral sunscreens degrade reefs, endangering the health and well-being of endangered Hawaiian monk seals and the livelihoods of communities throughout the state.

“I urge you to pass Bill 167, for the health of our marine environment now and for generations to come,” Boehm said in his written testimony in support of the measure.

The future generation got its say, too.

A good portion of the written testimony in support of the measure came from Big Island keiki, including 66 students at Innovations Public Charter School, all of whom submitted individual letters in favor of the bill.

“I understand that these mineral sunscreens are not as effective as ones containing stronger chemicals, but we, as a community, need to start caring more about our environment and less about convenience,” Brooke Hamilton, a student at Innovations Public Charter School, wrote in her testimony supporting the measure. “Even though the bad sunscreens are easier to apply and are less noticeable, we need to start caring for something more than ourselves.”

Sunscreen. (Photo courtesy of Maui Now)

Gavin Pries, another Innovations student, said all chemical sunscreens should be banned because of how they affect coral reefs, fish and humans.

“The corals are dying and human health is as risk,” Pries wrote in his testimony in support of Bill 167. “If we don’t act soon, the healthy coral will decrease, negatively impacting the fish population, which also will have an effect on our island resources. So you should act fast and ban chemical sunscreen on Hawai’i Island.”

Kekona Hooper, also a student at Innovations Public Charter School, wrote in his testimony in support of the measure that the use of non reef-safe sunscreen is killing ocean wildlife, including coral, fish and helpful marine algae. He likes the ocean — and loves eating fish and lobster and going fishing. The ocean is also a big part of Hawaiian culture.

“But with this sunscreen that is killing everything, I will not have all that,” Hooper wrote.

Innovations student Brock Lewis asked council members to imagine a world without healthy coral, clean water and thriving fish.

“That world will become a reality soon if we continue this cycle of toxic sunscreen use here on Hawai’i Island,” Lewis wrote in testimony supporting Bill 167.

“We have the chance to save our reefs and our bodies from these harmful chemicals,” Kolby Hiney, another Innovations students, wrote in testimony supporting the measure. “The Hawai’i County Council needs to get rid of chemical sunscreen use on our island.”

Compared to the amount of testimony in support of Bill 167, the written opposition was minute. Just two letters against the measure were submitted to the committee.

Kevin Cassel, president of the Hawai’i Skin Cancer Coalition, and Bao Xin Hailey Liang, a medical student with the Dermatology Interest Group, submitted joint testimony opposing the bill, citing several reasons it should not be adopted including recent studies showing that show mineral sunscreens and the physical residue they leave behind might actually cause more damage to coral reefs and other marine life.

The two added that the bill is premature because the Environmental Protection Agency is awaiting on recommendations from a national committee of scientific experts who are examining the ecological and human effects of sunscreen.

“The committee’s recommendations are expected to be released shortly,” their written testimony said. “The ban may countermand the finding of this national effort to examine the effects of sunscreen components and their constituent chemicals.”

They said the bill also could inadvertently encourage unauthorized sales and marketing of illegal sunscreen and promote efforts to profit from “illegally conferring reef-safety status on marketed sunscreens.” They added that the measure also will significantly decrease the effectiveness of currently marketed sunscreens to prevent sunburn, premature aging and skin cancers.

Among her reasons why the Council should not pass Bill 167, Georjean Adams said the legislative body is not qualified to make the determination that the chemical compounds in non-mineral sunscreen inhibit coral growth and degrade the integrity of reefs, nor is the Council qualified to evaluate the life cycle risks presented by titanium dioxide and zinc oxide and whether they preserve the health, safety and welfare of people and the environment.

She agreed with Cassel and Liang that council members should wait for additional research to be presented, mentioning a study underway by the National Academies of Science, “Environmental Impact of Currently Marketed Sunscreens and Potential Human Impacts of Changes in Sunscreen Usage,” the results of which should be published this year. Adams also said that the county Department of Environmental Management does not have the funds to administer and police the proposed measure if it were to pass, and “passing ordinances that cannot be enforced is poor governance.”

To read more of the testimony submitted for the March 17 climate committee meeting in connection with Bill 167, click here.

“This is a simple and clear measure that still provides the public with adequate options to protect themselves against the sun while also caring for our ʻāina and kai,” Inaba said in his email.

The Council meeting begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday in council chambers at the county building in Hilo. Members of the public who want to submit in-person testimony for Bill 167 can do so at the beginning of the meeting.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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