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KAHALUU BAY, Hawaii Island – A Big Island nonprofit isn’t waiting for the Hawaii Legislature, which may soon ban the sale of sunscreen products containing the coral reef-damaging chemical oxybenzone.
The organization is already working to remove the offending sunscreen — one container at a time. On Saturday, it was offering beachgoers free samples of reef-safe sunscreen in exchange for the bad stuff.
“Ultimately, I hope we can become a model for our beaches and our parks on this island and throughout Hawaii,” said Liam Kernell, director of communications for The Kohala Center, which since 2006 has run the Kahaluu Bay Education Center in partnership with Hawaii County.
Kona resident Joel Burkard trades in his sunscreen containing oxybenzone for a mineral-based product deemed reef-friendly.
Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat
“This is the most popular aquatic-visitor attraction on this island. So, we have almost half a million people coming here a year,” Kernell said.
Witnessing firsthand how that volume of use has impacted the bay’s fragile reef system, Kohala Center Director Cindi Punihaole said she started researching the causes of coral disintegration about three years ago. That’s when she learned that the manmade chemical oxybenzone, a common ingredient in sunscreen, was harming coral growth and reproduction.
So, Punihaole said she found sunscreen marketed as being “reef safe” and started offering it for sale at the vending booth the center offers at Kahaluu Beach Park abutting the bay.
“That was misleading,” she said, because the perceived safe sunscreen still had the harmful chemical. Its effects are shown in this film.
Punihaole again swapped products, yet still desired to do more to educate beachgoers about using only sunscreens made with mineral-based zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Her pursuits led to marine scientist Craig Downs, an Oahu native who has studied the threats oxybenzone and other cosmetic products have on coral reefs as executive director of the Virginia-based Haereticus Environmental Laboratory.
The Kohala Center Director Cindi Punihaole displays sunscreen made from zinc oxide, which she says won’t harm coral reefs.
Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat
On Saturday, Downs collected water samples from Kahaluu Bay as part of The Kohala Center’s launch of its “Sunscreen Swap” and yearlong research project documenting the amount of oxybenzone at the popular swimming site.
“One of the most essential components to the campaign is getting a good baseline analysis of the bay at the beginning and again at the end of this one-year campaign and compare the results,” Punihaole said.
Downs said his samples will be processed at his lab and then sent to Spain for detailed study in a state-of-the-art laboratory designed to analyze the environmental effects of personal care products.
“There’s very few places in the world that do this,” he said of the million-dollar equipment needed to perform the chemical analysis.
The results could impact the $9 billion annual sunscreen industry, Downs said.
“This is one of the hottest spots in the country and in the world for sunscreen sales,” he said of Hawaii. “This is ground zero for sunscreen sales.”
The effort to remove oxybenzone is becoming a movement. Smaller sunscreen manufacturers have started offering mineral-based alternatives, but the biggest push could be coming from a bill now headed to conference committee in the Legislature.
Senate Bill 2571 would create a statewide ban on the sale of any sunscreen containing oxybenzone “without a prescription issued by a licensed healthcare provider to preserve marine ecosystems.”
“This would be the first legislation (banning oxybenzone) in the world,” Downs said.
Showers at Kahaluu Beach Park drain into the nearby ocean, washing a harmful sunscreen chemical onto the fragile coral reefs.
Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat
It’s gotten the attention of the sunscreen industry, according to Downs, who said sunscreen marketers have told him the ban could shift an estimated $600 million in annual sales away from big corporations and to small sunscreen producers.
“I’ve actually had lobbyists scream at me because of this,” he said.
Also watching are maritime nations like Costa Rica, Belize and Palau, which want to see what the research shows before considering their own sunscreen bans, Downs said.
“They let America do it and see what the ramifications are, and if it looks good, then they do it,” he said.
On this day at the bay, what looked good to many beachgoers was learning how to avoid damaging the coral reef.
“I care about that,” Kona resident Joel Burkard said as he exchanged his oxybenzone-based sunscreen for a free sample made from safe zinc oxide. “I mean, who wants to kill the reef? Nobody.”
Burkard said he’s seen the damage to Kahaluu Bay and wants to help protect it.
“This is easy for me,” he said of the change in sun protection.
“I mean, who wants to kill the reef? Nobody.” — Joel Burkard
By mid-morning, volunteers had filled a bin with harmful sunscreen representing more than $500 worth of products. They said zinc oxide sunscreens are becoming more common, but cost slightly more money than those made with oxybenzone.
Punihaole said she wants oxybenzone classified as a hazardous waste so it can be disposed of properly in the landfill. Another alternative, she said, would be to return the collected sunscreens to their respective manufacturers with the request they change to reef-safe ingredients.
Kahaluu Bay’s reef already has been suffering from warming ocean temperatures, said David Tarnas, principal consultant for Marine and Coastal Solutions International Inc., who attended the event to trade in his own sunscreen. Coral reefs along the Big Island’s leeward coastline shrank by 50 percent due to exceptionally warm water in 2015, he said.
“I cried when I saw it,” Tarnas said of the marine devastation.
Iowa resident and first-time Hawaii visitor Seth Gilland traded in several bottles of sunscreen, each of which contained oxybenzone. He had no idea it was harming the marine environment.
“This is our first dip in the water today, so we thought, ‘Why not?’” he said.
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Jason Armstrong has reported extensively for both of Hawaii Island’s daily newspapers. He was a public information officer/grant writer for the Hawaii County Department of Parks and Recreation from 2012 to 2016 and has lived in Hilo since 1987. Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org