Gabbard sunscreen measures could help bolster efforts to project Hawaii’s coral reefs

  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

KAILUA-KONA — Two Hawaii politicians are taking the issue of reef safe sunscreens national.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful and representative of Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, introduced on Thursday the Oxybenzone and Octinoxate Impact Study Act of 2019 and the Reef Safe Act of 2019.

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The former mandates the Environmental Protection Agency conduct research on how oxybenzone and octinoxate affect humans and the environment. U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, also a Hawaii Democrat, introduced the same legislation in the Senate a day prior.

The latter of Gabbard’s measures calls on the Food and Drug Administration to develop standards defining the term “reef safe” for nonprescription sunscreens, stated a release from her office.

“The ingredients in many common sunscreens are chemicals that have been proven to kill coral reef, harm marine life and raise serious concerns about the impact they may have on people who use them,” Gabbard said in the release. “While proper skin protection is extremely important, we must make sure the ingredients used are safe for people and not jeopardizing the coral reef vital to local marine habitats and that help reduce coastal flood risk.”

Gabbard’s legislation comes one year after the Hawaii Legislature passed a bill banning the in-state sale of all sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate. That measure was sponsored by her father, state Sen. Mike Gabbard, D-Oahu, and will take effect Jan. 1, 2021.

The national legislation, if passed, could bolster Hawaii’s efforts to protect its reefs from harmful sunscreen chemicals by disseminating information to a wider audience about the threats they pose, thus increasing awareness.

State law will not prohibit tourists from bringing sunscreen to Hawaii. There won’t be beach checks to make sure oceangoers are using only reef safe products, Sen. Gabbard said. Thus, the effectiveness of the law will depend significantly on how aware people are of the dangers of some sunscreen chemicals, as well as how many care to actually do anything about it.

And beyond what an impact study could accomplish, a uniform definition of the term “reef safe” will add regulation to the marketing of different sunscreen brands in Hawaii before the ban takes effect, as well as on the mainland after that time.

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“There is a lot of confusion right now regarding what is or is not reef safe,” said Megan Lamson Leatherman, Hawaii Wildlife Fund president and Hawaii Island program director. “If you go into any … stores here, there’s a lot of stickers on most of the bottles that say reef safe, and they’re not.”

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.

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