Photo Alexandra Kahn

Hawaii makes a global impact with recent sunscreen legislation

By Alexandra Kahn

Environmental enthusiasts and conservation groups around the world continuously work in defense of the land, ocean, and air they strive to protect. Through protests, media, clean-ups, social outreach, and events, they fight hard to make their passions clear as they attempt to educate and inspire others. It’s a fight that has gone on for generations, and while they sporadically win small battles, the average result is awareness over action and change. It is rare and for the most part unheard of to have a local government continuously take action on behalf of the environment and create new legislation, but the local government of Hawaii has done just this.

The Hawaiian culture has a deep-rooted history with the environment that has fostered respect for the land, ocean, and inhabiting wildlife. As a small, isolated state made up of a chain of volcanic islands, when environmental disasters occur, there is no one else to blame, and there is often no one else to help. The local government has made monumental strides to pass a plethora of environment-related legislation this year that will have large-scale effects on the people, lifestyle, and economics of the Hawaiian islands. Ultimately, the impact of these bills will have a significantly positive impact on the future of this unique state.

One of the most aggressive bills to recently be passed into legislation deals directly with Hawaii’s reefs and the harmful effects brought on through the usage of mainstream sunscreens which often contain the harmful chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. The coral reefs and sea life of Hawaii comprise a significant component of the tourism industry, just as it does in other island and seaside communities. Bountiful evidence has tracked the different factors contributing to the dying reefs, and while many of these factors need to be tackled as global issues, one area where scientists found that local communities can make a difference is when it comes to the chemicals that continuously leak into the ocean from beach goer’s sunscreens. While banning these chemicals will not save the reefs, it is one of many steps that Hawaii and communities around the world need to take to combat the harmful impact humans are having on the ocean.

State Representative and Chairman of the Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection Chris Lee has been working on this bill, along with many other environment protection bills, for the past few years. While the official ban does not begin until 2020, the time in between provides a window in which sunscreen manufacturers have a chance to reformulate their product lines and continue operating within the state. Additionally, Lee tells Freesurf, “Passing laws is a careful balance of doing what’s right versus doing what’s possible. I don’t believe a ban that starts tomorrow would have enough support to pass because it would be difficult on small businesses that would be left with sunscreen stock they wouldn’t be able to sell, so we allowed time for them to sell it. It was clear that with a compromise like that, we had a much better chance of passing the law.” The ability to reformulate is the best long-term solution for everyone because the brands now have the opportunity to remove these chemicals from all consumer sunscreens worldwide.

While the effects of harmful sunscreens have been visible through the presence of a film-like layer floating on the surface in one of the best-known reefs of Oahu- Hanauma Bay, scientific evidence only came about in the past few years. Since childhood, Lee, along with many others locals in the community, witnessed a notable change in the quality and quantity of ocean reefs and marine life. There have been documentaries, such as “Chasing Coral”, that explain why and where the reefs are dying, but without enforcing change in the behavior of producers and consumers, a film can only achieve so much. In a state so influenced by marine life concerning recreation, tourism and food production, legislation that focuses on environmental preservation is crucial for the future of the islands and its people.

To start the overturning process, Lee physically spent the summer of 2017 “meeting with owners of surf shops, dive shops, and businesses that rely on the ocean and getting them to agree to stop selling bad sunscreen.” He was surprised and overwhelmed by the support he received from local businesses and knew that even if the legislation did not pass, he could rely on a long list of shops to stand their ground and remove the harmful products from their inventory. While he did run into the expected backlash from the pharmaceutical and retail industries, their arguments could not trump the overwhelming support for the future of the ocean’s reefs. Lee tells Freesurf, “Hawaii is the birthplace of modern surfing, and has more unique endangered species than nearly anywhere else on the planet. The developed western world often looks to us on ocean policy, and if we take action, I’m confident we will set a precedent that other states and countries will follow.” Along with this bill, Hawaii recently passed legislation concerning pesticide use, carbon neutrality, and zero waste schools. With these contributions to the community and the environment as a whole, Lee’s plan to set a precedent has already taken root.


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