A proposed ban on sunscreen products containing oxybenzone, which includes most of the sun protection items currently on store shelves, was approved by the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee on Tuesday.

Lawmakers were considering three bills related to oxybenzone, a chemical that protects skin from harmful UV rays but damages coral reefs.

The bills proposed varying degrees of regulation, ranging from the outright ban on sales to requiring retailers to post a sign warning consumers that some sunscreen products might damage Hawaii’s reefs.

Oxybenzone Hearing Capitol Chair Rep Chris Lee listens to lively testimony. 31 jan 2017
Rep. Chris Lee listens to testimony at Tuesday’s hearing. Lee was one of many lawmakers who introduced the measure calling for the sales ban. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

“This is something definitely worthy of discussion given that our coral reefs are a $10 billion resource for our local economy as well as the home of all the nearshore marine life that’s so important to local fishermen and all of us that grew up here,” said Rep. Chris Lee, who chairs the committee.

Oxybenzone is among 10 chemicals found to be toxic to coral organisms. It’s found in lotions, cosmetics and sunscreen, among other products. The chemical causes coral bleaching and inhibits coral organisms’ ability to reproduce.

House Bill 600, which would ban sale of personal care products contain oxybenzone, cleared the committee Tuesday. It has a companion measure in the Senate.

The bill now goes to the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, chaired by Rep. Angus McKelvey, for consideration.

The two other bills heard Tuesday would require labels or signs warning consumers that products containing oxybenzone are potentially harmful to coral reefs. One was approved and one deferred

Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, and a number of individuals testified in support of the bill to ban sales of products containing oxybenzone.  

Christina Comfort, an oceanographic researcher at the University of Hawaii, was among the individuals who testified.

“Even trace amounts of oxybenzone cause deformity in coral larvae and cause coral bleaching,” Comfort said.

Scientists believe oxybenzone damages coral when the amount of the chemical in water exceeds a concentration of 62 parts per trillion. The chemical was detected at almost 2,000 parts per trillion in Honolua Bay on Maui.

The Department of Health submitted testimony in support of the intent of House Bill 600 but did not comment on the other two bills.

The Hawaii Food Industry Association, a local nonprofit trade association, opposed all three bills.

“There is no scientific evidence that sunscreen ingredients including oxybenzone has contributed dramatically to the decline of native coral reef colonies,” Lauren Zirbel, HFIA’s executive director, said at the hearing.

She added that, compared to contamination from other industrial sectors, chemical residue from sunscreen and cosmetics has a relatively small impact on the environment.

sunscreen, bottle, sunblock, oxybenzone
Oxybenzone is found in over 3,500 sunscreen products. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a national organization, submitted testimony against all three bills.

Both organizations cited the risk that a state ban on sunscreens with oxybenzone will result in an increase in skin cancer rates.

“From our perspective it’s more of a public health issue,” Carlos Gutierrez of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association said at the hearing.

“One person dies of melanoma every hour,” he said.

Rep. Nicole Lowen called the discussion of melanoma a “scare tactic” because effective alternatives for sun protection are available.

According to Mirella Von Lindenfels, director of MarineSafe, sunscreens that contain titanium oxide or zinc oxide instead of oxybenzone are effective and less damaging to coral reefs.

She recommends beachgoers wear long-sleeved clothing and rash guards as sun protection alternative to sunscreen.

Bruce Anderson of the state Division of Aquatic Resources testified in support of the two bills that stop short of a sales ban, pushing educational outreach instead.

The Division of Aquatic Resources already has outreach initiatives to protect Hawaii’s reefs from sunscreen residue, including warnings published on its website.

The division also hands out oxybenzone-free sunscreen samples, and works with tour operators to encourage tourists not to use products containing the chemical, Anderson said.

Oxybenzone Hearing Capitol DLNR Bruce Anderson, DLNR Chief of Aquatic Resources. 31 jan 2017
Bruce Anderson of the state Division of Aquatic Resources argued against an outright ban on products containing oxybenzone. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In his testimony, Anderson, a survivor of skin cancer, said more work needs to be done on alternative sunscreen products to ensure they are “equally effective.”

Of the two bills that propose warnings for consumers buying sunscreen, only one, House Bill 818, passed the committee with an amendment.

The amended bill requires that all advertisements or displays for sunscreens with oxybenzone must “conspicuously” display a warning that tells consumers the sunscreen “contains chemicals which may harm Hawaii’s coral reef.”

The committee deferred the other bill, House Bill 819, indefinitely. It would have required all sunscreen containing oxybenzone to have a label that read: “Oxybenzone, when used in nearshore waters, poses serious hazards to coral and reef health.”  

The Sierra Club’s testimony cited concerns that House Bills 818 and 819 did not go far enough in protecting coral reefs from damage caused by high levels of oxybenzone.

There’s no regulatory agency responsible for enforcing a labeling requirement, said Jodi Malinoski, the Sierra Club’s Oahu Group coordinator.

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