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Hawaii considers banning certain sunscreens to protect coral reefs

Sunscreen & protecting coral reefs
Hawaii considers ban on certain sunscreens to protect coral reefs 03:42

KONA, Hawaii -- Hawaiian lawmakers are considering a ban on some popular sunscreens to try to protect coral reefs.

Researchers found that oxybenzone, a UV filtering ingredient commonly found in lotions, harms the coral. Up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen wind up in coral reef areas of the ocean every year, and scientists say that contributes to the ecosystem's damage.

The Big Island of Hawaii's pristine coastline is home to one of the state's largest coral reefs, a miles-long stretch that scientists say is dying at an alarming rate. 

Paradise Helicopters took CBS News correspondent Carter Evans and his team up for a bird's-eye view. To the naked eye, the ocean looks perfect below. 

Hawaii CBS News

"That's the confusion of this is that when you fly over, the sea water is actually masking the problem," ecologist Dr. Greg Asner said. He has studied the reefs for more than 25 years. 

In a plane outfitted with special imaging sensors, Asner can determine the health of the coral by its color.

"We're able to fly over and collect information over vast areas of reef that we would never get in a lifetime of diving," Asner said.
The red all over the map is dead or dying coral.


But to see how bad it really is, we have to go under water.

This is now a dead zone.

"We see the corals that died a few years ago, those are skeletons that are kind of eroded now. And then you see the corals that died recently. They're still standing up but they're dead, there's no pigment, they're just ghosts," Asner said. 

Dying coral reefs in Hawaii CBS News

It's not just happening in Hawaii. Coral reefs are dying off around the world. Scientists say it's mostly due to rising ocean temperatures, but new evidence suggests certain types of sunscreens are making it even worse in popular tourist areas.

Biologist Dr. Robert Richmond and his team study the effects of oxybenzone.

"You're talking about a shot glass in a swimming pool. These are the kinds of levels where things began to have action," Richmond said.

His research shows even a trace amount of oxybenzone is toxic to coral.

"First thing they give up are things like reproduction and growth, and then it will eventually die," Richmond said.

The strong scientific evidence is what encouraged Hawaii lawmakers to propose a statewide ban on the sale of all sunscreens that contain oxybenzone. State Sen. Will Espero says people will have to learn to use sunblocks that contain titanium and zinc instead.

Espero said if Hawaii approves the ban, it would be the first state to do so.

"I'd like to see Hawaii take the lead and make certain that we can do all we can to protect our ocean environment," Espero said.

But sunscreen makers are fighting back. A group representing about 90 percent of the cosmetic and personal care products industry said: "There is no conclusive, scientific evidence that sunscreen ingredients negatively impact coral reefs at levels that have been detected in tourist areas."

Richmond disagrees.

"The levels that we're finding in the water are the levels at which it's having that biological impact," Richmond said.

Asner said it's "tough" to think of ways to slow ocean warming, "but locally, we can do a lot to take stress off the reef."

"So sunscreen might be a good place to start?" Evans asked.

"It's one that we can all contribute to," Asner responded.

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