Petition Seeks US Ban on Chemicals in Sunscreen

May 23, 2018, 10:16 AM HST · Updated May 23, 10:16 AM
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West Maui Reef. File photo (June 2016) credit: DLNR.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the US Food and Drug Administration today to ban two  chemicals from sunscreens and other personal care products that they say are killing precious coral and damaging reefs.  The organization states that oxybenzone and octinoxate contribute to coral bleaching and death.

Today’s petition follows a similar measure approved May 1 by the state legislature in Hawaiʻi, where coral reefs have been harmed by ocean warming, acidification and pollution from man-made chemicals and coastal runoff.

“Coral reefs are in real trouble, and the FDA can help. Removing coral-killing chemicals from sunscreens is a simple, obvious step we’re long overdue in taking,” said Emily Jeffers, a biologist and attorney at the Center. “There are great nontoxic sunscreens out there. As we enjoy our oceans this Memorial Day weekend, let’s not pollute them.”

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, oxybenzone and octinoxate can foster viral infections in corals that hasten bleaching and death.  Scientists estimate that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion enter coral reefs around the world each year. The impact of sunscreen chemicals is stronger on vulnerable coral’s larvae, according to the organization.

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The Center for Biological Diversity states that lab studies have shown that even a miniscule amount of oxybenzone in the water is toxic to corals. Just 62 parts per trillion — the equivalent of three drops mixed into an Olympic-sized swimming pool — has been found to damage coral larvae, according to the organiztion. “Scientists have found high concentrations of oxybenzone in many areas popular with sunscreen-slathered tourists, including Waikīkī Beach in Hawaiʻi, the Florida Keys and the US Virgin Islands,” the organization stated in a press release.

“Coral reefs are gravely threatened by ocean warming, ocean acidification, overfishing and pollution. In the past three decades, unusually warm waters have caused coral reefs around the world to experience unprecedented mass bleaching, the first step toward the death of these biologically rich and critically important marine ecosystems,” organization leaders said.

The petition also warns the FDA of its legal duty to prevent oxybenzone and octinoxate from jeopardizing endangered corals found off the coast of Florida and the US Caribbean islands. In addition, the petition urges the agency to examine the environmental impacts of the two chemicals under the National Environmental Policy Act.

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“The FDA needs to heed the science and keep these harmful chemicals out of our imperiled coral reefs,” Jeffers said. “Coral reefs are the cornerstones of healthy oceans, and the least we can do is keep our sunscreen from killing them.”

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