KAHALUU BAY, Hawaii Island – Extremely high concentrations of oxybenzone have been found on Kona’s busiest snorkeling beach in water test results analyzed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Hawaii will institute a first-in-the-nation ban on oxybenzone in sunscreen beginning in 2021, but one of the directors of The Kohala Center, which coordinated the testing, worries that could be too late to save the coral reef at Kahaluu Bay.

Oxybenzone is toxic to coral reefs, algae and the fish they support.

“Those concentrations are rather horrifying,” marine scientist Craig Downs said of oxybenzone levels documented in waters off of Kahaluu Beach Park, which serves as the gateway through which 400,000 people enter the bay annually.

“I can see that reef dying in 10 to 15 years, and it won’t come back,” Downs said by telephone from Virginia, where he works as executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory.

Five water samples taken from different areas in the bay produced an average oxybenzone level 262 times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s guideline for a “high-risk” situation for marine life, according to NOAA’s assessment of the data.

Kahaluu Beach Park is Kona’s busiest snorkeling spot.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

“I think it’s why we’re seeing this degradation of the reef there,” Downs said.

An Oahu native who has studied how oxybenzone and other cosmetic products threaten coral reefs, Downs oversaw the collection of water samples last April.

The Kohala Center and its Kahaluu Bay Education Center coordinated the study.

The samples were sent first to a laboratory in Spain – few places test for oyxbenzone levels in ocean water – but the testing was delayed so long that they were then shipped to Florida for testing, Cindi Punihaole, the education center’s director, said Saturday.

“We just got this off the press,” she said of a poster depicting NOAA’s analysis of the test results, which Kahaluu Bay Education Center announced Saturday in recognition of Monday being Earth Day.

Marine scientist Craig Downs gathered water samples last year at Kahaluu Beach Park.

Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

The rocky coastline that forms Kahaluu Bay prompts most beachgoers to enter the water through a narrow, sandy gap in the outcroppings. That’s why the highest concentrations were found at the popular entrance, Downs said, adding other testing sites in deeper water also were “really high.”

“It just comes rolling off of them as they enter the water,” Jamie Pardau, an 11-year volunteer with the education center’s ReefTeach marine program, said of the sunscreen that beachgoers typically lather on to prevent sunburn.

Most sunscreen products still contain oxybenzone, which impairs algae growth, can kill coral and decreases fertility in fish because it is a hormone disrupter, said Jeanie Fraser, another ReefTeach volunteer.

“That’s why the fish are getting confused,” Fraser said.

ReefTeach recommends using rash guards, leggings or other clothing to protect against the sun’s harmful UV rays, which have become more intense in West Hawaii since late last year. That’s when a 35-year run of volcanic clouds in the region ceased along with the Kilauea eruption that produced them.

Time-lapse photos show damage to coral in Kahaluu Bay. Courtesy of Silver Spiral Seas.

Silver Spiral Seas

If sunscreen is used, those listing zinc oxide or titanium oxide as ingredients are reef-safe, but should be applied 15 minutes before entering the water, ReefTeach members said.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate, another sunscreen ingredient, will become illegal to sell or distribute in Hawaii starting Jan. 1, 2021.

The delay is worrisome for Punihaole, who would like to see Hawaii County immediately ban sunscreen containing oxybenzone and several other chemicals from all beach parks.

“By the amount of degradation we’re seeing, we have to find ways to help them,” she said of coral populations that make Kahaluu Bay a popular destination.

Punihaole has convinced the county to close the park and ocean access May 20-21 to aid the annual spawning of cauliflower coral, which is also threatened by periodic El Niño weather patterns that boost water temperatures.

High temperatures in 2015 killed an estimated 90 percent of local cauliflower coral, she said.

Cindi Punihaole, director of The Kohala Center’s Kahaluu Bay Education Center, fears sunscreen contamination may kill the coral reef at Kahaluu Bay.

Jason Armstrong/Civil Beat

“We may lose the other 10 percent by the end of the summer,” Punihaole said.

This remaining coral is expected to produce its yearly offspring next month. Volunteers will gather as much as possible to be raised in tanks in Hilo until they are mature enough to have a better chance of surviving  back in the bay.

Caribbean, Asian and other maritime countries that benefit from ocean-based tourism are looking at Hawaii’s oxybenzone testing and regulation as an example to follow to save their own threatened reefs, Downs said.

“I think it will get the world’s attention,” he said of the new study.

Sales of sun protection products worldwide are $9 billion a year, according to Downs.

He said he hopes to gather more water samples June 1, but added it costs about $1,500 per sample.



Cindi Punihaole Kennedy Letter (Text)

This news can't wait.

Every day, journalists in nonprofit newsrooms like Civil Beat dig deeper into the raw news of the day to deliver in-depth and investigative reporting that engages communities, advances solutions, and demands accountability. This news can’t wait. So why would you?

Give today and NewsMatch will double the impact of your donation. We’ll even throw in a limited-edition Civil Beat t-shirt!

About the Author