Weekly Current Affairs: April week-1 - US Virgin Islands bans sunscreens harming coral reefs

  • Category
    Environment
  • Published
    9th Apr, 2020

Context

The United States Virgin Islands (USVI) banned sunscreen products with chemicals known to be harmful to coral reefs and marine life, making USVI territory the first in the United States to implement it.

About

  • There are two types of sunscreen:
    • Chemical: Chemical sunscreen agents such as oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) or avobenzone work by absorbing ultraviolet (UV) light, thereby reducing skin exposure
    • Physical: Physical sunscreens such as titanium dioxide, iron oxide, or zinc oxide, work by reflecting and scattering UV rays in addition to absorbing some of them.
      • Physical sunscreens can occasionally give an undesirable white cast when applied to the skin.
      • Formulators can reduce the chalky appearance by decreasing the particle size, resulting in some physical sunscreen’s classification as nanoparticles, or compounds whose size is measured on the nanoscale (1 nanometer is one billionth of a meter).
      • Nanoparticles are another potential area of environmental concern in which more research needs to be done because they act differently than larger sized materials. 

How Sunscreens can harm?

  • Sunscreens containing the 3 Os — oxybenzone, octocrylene and octinoxate — harm the coral reefs that protect the Virgin Islands’ shoreline.
  • Sunscreens containing mineral alternatives such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have been exempted.
  • The concentration of these chemicals is 40 times more than acceptable levels in some of our territorial waters.
  • Other nations are likely to follow suit. The Hawaii government, for instance, stated that it has voted to ban the sale of sunscreens containing reef-damaging chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate from 2021.
  • Key West in Florida has banned stores from keeping sunscreen containing the toxin 3 O’s from 2021. The Caribbean islands of Bonaire have unanimously voted to ban the sale of sunscreen by 2021.
  • The archipelago nation of Palau is set to become the first country to enact a sunscreen ban, which will take effect in 2020.

How is sunscreen a problem?

  • When people swim with sunscreen on, chemicals such as oxybenzone can seep into the water, where they’re absorbed by corals.
  • These substances contain nanoparticles that can disrupt coral’s reproduction and growth cycles, ultimately leading to bleaching.
  • Sunscreen enters aquatic environments by two primary routes:
    • indirectly from wastewater treatment plants after it has been washed off by consumers at home
    • directly washing off from recreational activities such as swimming.
  • Because sunscreen agents are continually added to aquatic environments through these means, they can be considered a persistent pollutant.
  • However, sunscreen concentration in water (either fresh or salt) can vary greatly. The rate at which sunscreen particles sediment or fall to the bottom of the body of water, rather than remaining in suspension, varies for each compound.
  • Additionally, some compounds biodegrade faster than others (and some aren’t biodegradable).
  • The concentration of the amount of sunscreen in water also typically increases with increasing population.
     

Which reefs are at risk around the world?

  • Coral reefs all over the world are threatened by pollution, and many of the most popular destinations have the most at-risk coral. 
  • Australia’s Great Barrier Reefand the bays of Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Israel are especially vulnerable.

How the world is actually becoming responsible?

Hawaii:

  • Humans might be responsible for this contamination, but we’re also capable of helping heal these fragile underwater ecosystems.
  • In 2018, lawmakers in Hawaii passed a billbanning the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, another harmful chemical.
  • Hawaii is the first state to pass such a measure, and it could go into effect as a law by January 1, 2021.

Palau:

  • In 2018, the small island nation of Palau announced it too would ban selling or using sunscreens that contain chemicals harmful to coral reefs. Palau is a pristine archipelago known for having one of the largest marine reserves on the planet.
  • Florida: Key West in Florida has banned stores from keeping sunscreen containing the toxin 3 O’s from 2021.
  • Bonaire: The Caribbean islands of Bonaire have unanimously voted to ban the sale of sunscreen by 2021.
  • Mexico: Similarly, Mexico has requested public to not use sunscreen with harsh chemicals.
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