The Hawaii Senate is on track to pass a bill banning the use of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone, which studies have shown harms coral reefs.

But with mounting opposition from convenience store owners and personal care product companies, the legislation’s fate in the House remains uncertain.

Nearly 9 million tourists who visit Hawaii each year, along with the state’s 1.4 million residents, would have to start paying closer attention to the labels on their sunscreen containers if Senate Bill 1150 becomes law. It would prohibit the use of sunscreens or cosmetics that contain oxybenzone while on a beach or in the ocean.

On Thursday, it cleared the Judiciary and Labor Committee, chaired by Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran,

Sens. Karl Rhoads, left, and Gil Keith-Agaran confer Thursday morning before voting in favor of a bill to ban the use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone on Hawaii beaches. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Scientists have conducted studies that show products containing the chemical — the active ingredient in many sunscreens — contribute to the destruction of coral reefs and weaken their ability to mitigate the effects of climate change.

People would instead have to switch to sunscreens containing zinc oxide or other mineral blockers that still protect against the sun’s cancer-causing UVA and UVB rays but aren’t known to hurt corals. Supporters of the ban also suggest wearing rash guards or other lightweight long-sleeved clothing as an alternative sun block.

The bill’s next stop is a vote before the full Senate, where it’s expected to pass.

It could be a different story in the House, where Rep. Angus McKelvey, chairs of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, has so far blocked oxybenzone-related bills from advancing.

The House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, chaired by Rep. Chris Lee, passed two oxybenzone-related bills, one banning the sale of products containing the chemical and another requiring any advertisements or displays for sunscreens with oxybenzone to include a warning about how its use in nearshore waters poses serious hazards to coral and reef health.

The ad-warning bill was amended last month in the Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Kaniela Ing, losing the part about the ad warning and instead just banning the sale of products containing oxybenzone.

But both bills have been pending for weeks waiting for a hearing in McKelvey’s committee, their last hurdle before a vote by the full House.

Rep Angus McKelvey chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce. Capitol. 22 feb 2017
Rep. Angus McKelvey, chair of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, killed oxybenzone-related bills in the House by not giving them a hearing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

If the House bills languish, and signs indicate they will, the last vehicle to address oxybenzone will rest in SB 1150, which could cross over to the House as early as next week. The legislative session ends May 4.

There’s been strong opposition from the Hawaii Food Industry Association, a trade group that represents some 200 companies, including ABC Stores and KTA Super Stores.

“The combination of reduced choice and less effective products could have the dangerous consequence of individuals using less protective sunscreens or worse no longer using sunscreen, thereby causing more skin damage and potentially increasing skin cancer rates,” the association wrote in testimony on the legislation.

The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, based in Washington, D.C., raised similar concerns.

Supporters include the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Democratic Party of Hawaii, environmental nonprofits, ocean-tourism groups and state agencies.

OHA noted in its testimony that economic studies in 2002 and 2003 found an overall revenue contribution of $800 million from Hawaii’s coral reefs and coastal resources, with an added recreational, amenity, fishery, biodiversity and educational value of $364 million per year.

“While our ocean waters clearly hold cultural, spiritual, and biological significance beyond any monetary value, these economic analyses clearly reflect the critical nature of our marine environment to our islands,” OHA’s Beneficiary Advocacy and Empowerment Committee wrote in its testimony.

Hanauma Bay Nature Reserve vog sunrise2
The concession store at Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, the state’s most popular snorkeling spot, has stopped carrying sunscreens with oxybenzone. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rick Gaffney of the Hawaii Fishing and Boating Association, based on the Big Island, also submitted written testimony in support.

“Products containing these deleterious chemicals should not be allowed in Hawaii’s nearshore waters, especially as they are already suffering from the impacts of global warming, runoff and overfishing,” he said. “A bill of this nature is essential to better protecting the reefs of Hawaii so that they in return can protect and feed us, and continue to serve as one of the primary attractions for our tourist industry.”

The state departments of Health and Land and Natural Resources expressed support for the bill’s intent, but also raised concerns.

DLNR is worried about how it would enforce the ban. And the Department of Health wants to make sure there are sufficient alternatives, such as sunscreens with zinc oxide.

Democratic Party of Hawaii Chair Tim Vandeveer and others have prodded McKelvey to hear the bills in the House.

“The Democratic Party of Hawaii, of which you are a member, has identified these bills as priorities for this legislative session,” Vandeveer wrote in a letter to McKelvey. “We understand you may have some reservations about the implementation of these bills. That is the conversation that should be had at the hearing and not behind closed doors.”

Hawaii Democratic Party Chair Tim Vandeveer sent Rep. Angus McKelvey a letter urging him to hear oxybenzone-related bills in the House and reminding him he’s a Democrat. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

With no hearings scheduled as of Thursday, the bills in the House are dead this session due to the Legislature’s Friday deadline to have all bills passed out of committees and ready for final votes before the full House or Senate.

Still, amendments can be made to the bills that do survive when they cross over to the other chamber, which will schedule another round of committee hearings.

Meanwhile, some businesses have voluntarily stopped carrying sunscreens that contain oxybenzone, including the concession at Hanauma Bay, the most popular snorkeling site in Hawaii.

Craig Downs of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia has been a leading scientist researching why corals have been dying, even in protected marine areas like Hanauma Bay.

“It’s pretty horrifying,” Downs said in June at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Honolulu. 

Seawater testing discovered concentrations of oxybenzone — which is found in over 3,500 sunscreen products — exceeded the minimum toxicity level of 62 parts per trillion (equivalent to a drop of water in 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools) by 12 times in Hawaii. The oxybenzone causes the coral to bleach at temperatures several degrees cooler and inhibits its ability to reproduce.

Worldwide, scientists estimate 8,000 to 16,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reefs each year.

Downs, a University of Hawaii graduate, has been testifying in support of the oxybenzone-related bills.

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