Gabbard introduces sunscreen legislation in U.S. House

  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

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

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, 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. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) 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, a release from her office stated.

“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 on Jan. 1, 2021.

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

“I think it will really raise the profile with what we passed last year in Hawaii,” Sen. Mike Gabbard said of his daughter’s and Hirono’s proposed measures.

Key West, Palau, Bonaire and Aruba have all enacted similar sunscreen laws since Hawaii’s legislative work in 2018. But perhaps more crucial than just inspiring governmental action is fostering an element of public awareness.

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

Hawaiian Airlines has handed out reef safe products to passengers on its flights and the hotel industry has also engaged in educational campaigns to let visitors know what products the state prefer they purchase, Sen. Gabbard said.

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 in 2021, as well as on the mainland following that time.

“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.”

Even the physical blockers recommended by environmentalists in Hawaii — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — can be hazardous to human and reef health if manufactured in nanoparticle form, she continued.

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But Lamson and others in the state’s marine community have stressed that while threats posed by sunscreen chemicals are important, it’s equally critical to regard those dangers properly relative to other coral stressors.

“Climate change and our water temperatures rising is really what’s killing our corals,” Lamson said. “Sunscreen and over fishing and runoff, they’re all also stressing them out. But sunscreen is getting a lot of hype and I think it’s important, but I just think that people should put it into perspective.”

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