HANAUMA BAY, OAHU (HAWAIINEWSNOW) - Researchers and lawmakers went to Hanauma Bay on Friday, but it wasn't to enjoy the sun and the sand.
Instead, it was to gather evidence that could lead to a ban on two chemicals that are commonly found in sunscreens that scientists say are harming coral reefs.
Craig Downs is an ecotoxicologist with the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia. He sounded the alarm about oxybenzone and octinoxate.
"Those are the two chemicals that we're focusing on right now because we know they pose a clear and imminent threat, not to every coral reef in the world, but coral reefs where tourists like to participate in," said Downs.
In other words, places like Hanauma Bay, which draws 3,000 people a day, or nearly a million visitors a year. And those visitors are urged to use sunscreen.
"It's the tourists and the sunscreen that threaten the reefs that we want to enjoy the most," said Downs.
Downs and volunteers gathered water samples from ten areas in the bay to determine the levels of sunscreen toxins.
State Sen. Will Espero (D-Ewa Beach) and Rep. Gene Ward (R-Hawaii Kai) pushed unsuccessfully for a ban in the last legislative session. They were among those who waded into the water to get the samples they hope will help their cause.
"We're doing testing. We're checking the water. And hopefully we'll have some research and evidence," said Espero.
"There's a lot of chemistry going on here that's very dangerous, and I think once people know, they're going to say, 'oh yeah, I'm never going to buy that product," said Ward.
Downs looked at the water sample that Espero and Ward got about 75 yards offshore. He said there was already evidence of high sunscreen levels, even before the sample is sent to the lab.
"There will be bubbles on the side (of the jar) because gas from the water will begin to come out," Downs said. "You don't see any bubbles here. And that's because there's oil in this sample."
The group Friends of Hanauma Bay wants to educate visitors about the dangers of the chemicals in the sunscreens, before the damage to the reef there is irreversible.
"We probably have 15 to 20 years, and so we have a window now to do protecting, preserving, and then restoring it," said the group's president, Lisa Bishop.
But Downs believes there also should be a law.
"Regulatory bans are usually the most effective way of reducing pollution," he said.
Downs said the samples will be sent to a lab in Spain that specializes is finding chemicals that are used in sunscreens. He expects the results to be available in January. Meanwhile, Espero said he plans to use those results as evidence when he introduces another proposed ban in the next legislative session.