Hawaii beach showers are something so many of us use but may rarely have given much thought to. The effluent from these ubiquitous beach showers goes directly into the ocean together with whatever chemicals it contains. In a newly released study, this now appears to be a severe problem for beaches where showers have constant use.
Hawaii beach showers may be a significant contributor to dangerous pollution.
This is a result of a variety of contaminants found in sunscreens. Those enter the ocean and present a source of damage to the fragile Hawaii reef ecosystem.
According to a study from the Journal of Hazardous Materials (September 2022), “sunscreen contamination was highest at beaches with the highest visitation rates.” Obviously, entering the water at popular beaches with sunscreen on is perhaps the source of even more than environmental damage. But that was not the subject of this study.
Nonetheless, beach showers may be a significant source of chemicals entering the water, especially at the most popular Hawaii beaches, such as Waikiki, Ko’olina, Waimea Bay, Hanalei Bay, Po’ipu, Makena, Wailea, Kapalua, Hapuna, etc.
We think of Hanalei Bay, where we have used the beach showers frequently. There is so much effluent there that it creates a small river heading back to the ocean.
The article suggests that mitigation efforts be implemented to reduce the pollution from the sunscreen entering the water.
Hawaii Beach shower runoff studied.
In 2019, beach shower runoff was investigated on the Big Island, Maui, and Oahu. The water sampled showed a wide range of chemical pollutants from the UV filters in sunscreens.
The two most commonly found chemicals were oxybenzone, often found in high concentrations, and octocrylene, which was found at almost every site. In both cases Waikiki beach showers had the most dangerous levels. Other chemicals found included avobenzone, octinoxate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, benzophenone-2, benzophenone-1, 2,2′-dihydroxy-4-methoxybenzophenone, 4-hydroxybenzophenone, and dioxybenzone (DHMB).
Hawaii coral reefs and people: dangerous chemicals from sunscreens.
Researchers reported these same chemicals were, not surprisingly, found in coral reefs adjacent to the showers, and “these chemicals could pose a serious threat to beach zones and coral reef habitats.”
The Canadian Medical Association recently said, “Ultraviolet filters found within chemical sunscreens may be harmful to the environment.” More research is needed because “Emerging evidence suggests that some chemical sunscreen ingredients are systemically absorbed, but the clinical importance of this remains unclear…”
Recommendations for remediation are many.
As of 2021, Hawaii enacted a state law prohibiting the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. These chemicals alone are found in thousands of sunscreens.
That does not mean, however, that visitors don’t still have and use them. It remains to be seen how big an impact the state’s sales ban and and visitor education campaign have made. Future studies may be able to answer this question by using these 2019 levels as a baseline.
Hawaii beach showers are a chemical pollution “point source” to address.
There is concern that the reefs are being damaged by the chemicals present in ways such as a critical inability to reproduce, which could result in reef death. As reefs decline for multiple reasons, including climate change, and pollution such as from beach showers, it is an easy way to mitigate some problems.
The study suggests that the showers violate the Clean Water Act by being a “single identifiable sources of pollution from which pollutants are discharged.”
Things you can do to help.
- Only use reef-safe sunscreens. Physical barrier sunscreens, and not chemical ones.
- Avoid using beach showers that drain into the ocean; wait instead to use showers elsewhere.
- Swim late in the day when sunscreen is not needed.
Little is known about UV ingredients in sunscreen.
More research needs to be done to understand better the global and personal risks associated with the chemicals in sunscreens.
A recent National Academy of Sciences report said, “Sunscreen is used as a critical tool for the prevention of UV skin damage and skin cancer; however, specific UV filter ingredients may also impact the health of aquatic environments, resident species, or ecosystem services.”
Hawaii may seek to act further in this regard.
Maui County is already looking at going further in banning all chemical sunscreens.
Importance of Hawaii coral reefs.
Hawaii coral reefs in our coastal waters provide important shoreline protection and vital habitat for marine life, as well as serving as a location for fishing, snorkeling and other human activities. Coral reefs today are facing many threats, from contamination by human sewage and polluting chemicals from sunscreens and plastics, to other threats such as the depletion of the ozone layer, rising sea levels and temperatures, and the acidification of the ocean itself.