Sea Science: by Jordanna Sheermohamed
Sun protection has been a hot topic with much debate for some time, but most studies have concluded that regular use of sunscreens/sunblocks is one important step in minimizing the health risks of sun exposure. Unfortunately, sunscreens/sun blocks can negatively affect the environment.
Hawaii is now the first state to officially ban sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, chemicals that are commonly used in many mainstream brands. The bill to ban the use of those sunscreens – signed in May 2018 and taking effect Jan. 1, 2021 – follows multiple studies that have shown that oxybenzone and octinoxate are harmful to coral health and propagation.
The push for a ban has been in action for years, supported with a 2016 study conducted by the nonprofit science organization Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. The study concluded that these chemicals caused coral bleaching and damaged coral DNA, producing deformities and eventual death.
Additional studies published in the Environmental Health Perspectives – a monthly open-access journal published with support of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the National institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – have also concluded that sunscreens act as a contaminant on aquatic organisms, even in extremely low concentrations.
For example, toxicity has been found to occur at concentrations equivalent to roughly one drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool, according to researcher Omri Brontesin at Tel Aviv University.
Furthermore, young corals are 1,000 times more susceptible to contaminants. In 2015, a paper published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology revealed that oxybenzone is a genotoxin, meaning it affects coral on a genetic level. That means new generations of coral, already at a disadvantage because of potentially damaged DNA, will find it even harder to survive the effects of these contaminants, therefore assuring diminished future generations of coral.
The paper’s lead author, Dr. Craig Downs, wrote that 85 percent of reefs in the Caribbean and 99 percent of reefs in the Florida Keys have disappeared in the past 50 years, and 40 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has disappeared in the past 30 years. This is an alarmingly high value, considering how corals act as a habitat for many species that are woven within the food chain. It has been estimated by the U.S. National Parks that roughly 4,000-6,000 tons of sunscreen are introduced to coral reefs around the globe annually.
No one advocates the elimination of sunscreens altogether. The health risk to humans can be addressed with more environmentally friendly options, such as sun-protective clothing, or alternative sunscreen options with eco-friendly or biodegradable chemicals.
“The only true reef-safe ingredient is non-nano zinc oxide,” stated Brian Guadagno, a longtime ocean lifeguard who founded Raw Elements. a sunscreen brand considered reef-safe.
The largest hotel management group in Hawaii stocks its guest rooms with samples of Raw Elements and installed sunscreen dispensers at many of its properties. This progressive movement is part of the “ForOurReef” campaign, designed to educate its 5 million annual visitors and show that it’s possible to still snag a healthy glow while protecting the survival of coral reefs.
Jordanna Sheermohamed is president and lead meteorologist of Weather Forecast Solutions, a weather-forecasting firm (WeatherForecastSolutions.com). Comments are welcome below.