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South Korean Students Visit Hawai‘i with Questions About Sunscreen and Community Activism


Last year Hawai‘i made national headlines for becoming the first state in the U.S. to pass a bill banning the sale of sunscreen containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. News of the groundbreaking bill spread across the globe, inspiring Palau and Bonaire to follow suite within the same month with sunscreen legislation of their own. Even before the bill passed though, the efforts of my small school club and I reached international audiences, including some in South Korea, a country with an impressive 1,499 miles of coastline. 


While obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in Sustainable Science Management at the UH Maui, I was president of the school club, Student Ohana for Sustainability(SOS), and intern to Rob Parsons, Environmental Coordinator for Maui County, where I was able to work with scientists like Craig Downs, legislators, and non-profit groups on a bill to ban the sale of sunscreen containing oxybenzone or octinoxate because of their detrimental impacts to coral reef. A year before the bill passed, Maui News published a story on a sunscreen swap held by the SOS club at Kamaole Beach Park and it was seen by the students at Duksung Women's University in Seoul, Korea. The Korean university holds an annual competition called 'Global Challenger' that challenges students to utilize the era of global interconnectedness in order to learn new ideas of how they can promote changes in their own local environment. The group that studied Hawai‘i efforts, composed of students in chemistry, biology, and psychology, won top honors, earning a trip across the globe to gain first hand perspective. They say their goal is to use what they learn in Hawai‘i to create a strategy to effectively warn the Korean people of the detrimental components in sunscreens and to work towards a larger goal of understanding how modern society can coexist with the natural world in a healthy way. 

I was recently interviewed by these students, who travelled all the way from South Korea to ask about my work on raising public awareness of harmful chemicals used in many sunscreens. 


The Korean students first visited O‘ahu and spoke with Senator Mike Gabbard and an official from DLNR and were impressed by their willingness to meet and openly discuss issues, commenting, “In Korea we would never be able to meet with a politician or government official, as we were able to do in Hawai‘i. They don’t typically listen to young people and are not open to hearing our ideas.” Although they don’t think there will be any legislation in the near future for this reason, they do hope to spread public awareness.


My main message to the group was about the power of community initiatives, emphasizing that a small group of people can make a difference. Like the famous example of a drop of water in a pond causing ripples, one person or group can inspire another, who in turn inspires another, and so on, until you have a local, national, or even global movement.


The following is a transcript of the interview.


  1. Do you know what other students in Hawaii think about those environmental problems? Could you tell us about their perceptions and views on environmental issues?


It’s difficult for me to say how other people feel about something, but in general the people and students of Hawai‘i are very connected to and concerned about the environment. The natural world completely shapes Hawaiian culture, and with a revival of Hawaiian culture and language has come a revival of ferociously protecting and restoring the environment. Hawai‘i is actually the extinction capital of the world, with more plants and animals species going extinct than anywhere else, giving the people of Hawai‘i even greater incentive to protect what we have left. In Hawai‘i, we take Malama ‘Aina to heart, which means a responsibility to care for the land, who is considered as a relative or kapuna (ancestor). 


(2) Why did you become interested in conservation of marine ecosystems and further environmental issues?


Living in Hawaii, marine ecosystems are a part of your daily life, whether it’s for economic reasons (many have jobs that rely on a healthy ocean), social, recreational, cultural, or subsistence (food and supplies). It’s easy for most here to feel a connection to the marine environment and want to protect it.


But, in our modern day society, it is easy become disconnected from the natural world and to forget it is essential to the survival of humanity. Global climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification, massive levels of extinctions, pollution, and other environmental disasters is something that we are all dealing with in our life times. It is no longer a threat of the distant future but a present we are currently facing. Our environmental problems stem from the human systems we have built, as if they exist outside of nature, which is why I joined the Sustainable Science Management program here at University of Hawaii Maui College. It is all about systems and system interactions.


(3) What was the biggest reason that led environmental concerns and thoughts to the 'Sunscreen exchange event'?


I learned about scientific studies that showed certain chemicals found in most sunscreens harm coral reefs on many levels, including DNA mutation, endocrine disruption, and bleaching at lower temperatures. I was inspired by another small community group that was trying to raise awareness about these sunscreen ingredients and had held a sunscreen swap. I thought it was a great idea, and when I brought it up to my school club, Student Ohana for Sustainability, they were as gung ho about it as I was. I contacted as many reef safe sunscreen companies as I could find, trying to find as many local ones as I could as well as big name, and asked for samples of their product I could exchange for people and I got a lot of support. When it comes to environmental issues, there are normally so many factors that impact the issue, and they are usually so massive an individual can’t really do a lot towards it, like global warming. The smallest islands that have the least impact on climate change are the first ones to feel its impacts. 

The most dangerous threat to coral reef health is rising ocean temperatures, which is a complex issue that has many causes, is difficult for an individual to affect a change, and will take a significant amount of time to counter. In the meantime, we should stand up and be leaders and do all we can to give coral reefs, that are so important to us, every opportunity for success. Removing oxybenzone and octinoxate from the water could be immediate (if the bill takes effect sooner than 45 years from now), there is only one targeted source, and it is easy for an individual to affect change. 


(4) According to the article we read, you held the event in June 2017. Have you had any other activities since then? If so, could you tell us about the activities?


There are so many issues impacting the sustainability of Maui, we shift topics from semester to semester, but in regards to the sunscreen issue, after the June 2017 sunscreen swap, we incorporated education materials and samples into our other events, like Earth Day celebration on campus and beach clean ups and submitted testimony for hearings on sunscreen bills. On a personal level, I was invited to take up an internship with the Environmental Coordinator for Maui County and was part of a “think tank” group composed of scientists, political aides, and non-profit groups that worked on raising sunscreen awareness and getting legislation passed. As an intern and member of the group, I was able to help facilitate community engagement events, special presentations to the county council, and have a voice in the ear of legislators.


(5) Do you know that a law that prohibits the specific composition of the sun screen will go into effect? What do you think about this? You can answer it briefly.


I am so happy our state government was able to see that it is vital to protect our ecosystem services, as it impacts every aspect of human life, and be future thinking. I do wish the bill went into effect sooner than 2021 though. Researchers have found oxybenzone concentrations in some Hawaiian waters at more than 30 times the level considered safe for corals and it is estimated that every single day in Maui alone, 55 gallons of sunscreen are going into nearshore water. So each day this legislation isn’t in effect is another day the reefs are not at their healthiest. 


(6) Do you think the law will effectively prevent Coral bleaching? And why do you think?


It is hard to make a statement like that, since there are so many other factors impacting coral. The most dangerous threat to coral reef health is rising ocean temperatures, but since these ingredients lead to coral bleaching at a lower temperature, it very well could make the difference between survival and death. There is something called the precautionary principle, which is basically “better safe than sorry”, a popular phrase in the US that means it is better to do everything you can to prevent catastrophe than regret not doing it later on. We want to do everything we can to give our coral a fighting chance. 


(7) How was the reaction of the people around you - students at Maui University, friends and family - after the bill was passed?


Everyone was so excited! A lot of people came together and worked hard to make this happen. Social media was filled with people sharing their excitement but also reminding everyone that the bill will not go into effect for a few years, so there is still a lot of education and work to be done. After the bill passed, we all started to focus on contacting retailers and creating resources for them to easily move to selling reef safe sunscreen, as well as educating visitors/tourists, since most people that live on Maui already know about the right sunscreens. 


It is incredible to me, not only that students from the other side of the world have access to information about what our small school club is doing here in Maui, but that they also have such similar views on environmental issues and concerns about the sustainability of the societies we have built. With the world being more connected than ever before, the study of sustainability is vital, as it is the study of systems, both man-made and natural, and their interconnections. I think there is a global movement by young people, thanks to this connectedness and easy access to information from around the world, to reorganize value structures to reflect the knowledge that human society cannot exist in a bubble outside of the environment.

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