Interview of Malina Fagan & Lynn Pelletier ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen, and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guests today are Lynn Pelletier and Malina Fagan. They are award-winning documentarians from the Big Island of Hawaii whose recent short film called “Reefs At Risk” explores the harmful effects some sunscreen chemicals have on coral reefs and marine life. Their film has been seen by almost half a million people and helped put pressure on legislators in Hawaii to ban sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate from being sold in the state. To watch Reefs At Risk go to or search for it on Youtube.

So first, thank you for your work in the world, and second, thank you for being on the program.

MF: Thank you for having us.

LP: Yes, thank you very much.

DJ: So let’s talk a little bit about what are coral reefs and what are some of the threats to them, and then specifically move to the threats that you have been working on.

MF: Okay, for those of you who don’t know what coral reefs are; a lot of people think they’re just rocks in the ocean and you can step on them and they’re not living. But they’re actually animals. So when we talk about coral bleaching or mass bleaching of coral reefs, we’re really talking about a lot of animals dying. And how they work is they grow really slowly, so if you look at a really nice beautiful established reef, that took years for it to get that way, and they’re very very sensitive animals. They like a certain temperature. They like a certain quality of water. And when all these conditions are met, they really thrive. But there are so many factors in our world today that are stressing them out. And that can be anything from climate change to overfishing, sedimentation and pollution. Also ocean acidification’s another big one, but the one that we’re most focused on is pollution, and that can be anything from plastics to pesticides and other chemicals that go into the waters. But something that we’re really passionate about here in Hawaii is sunscreen pollution.

LP: We found it very amusing when we made our film because we would ask people “What are corals?” And we got all kinds of different answers, from a plant in the ocean, from a hard animal on rock, a sponge-like animal. It was really amusing and I’ll be the first to say that I didn’t really know what coral was. I grew up in Connecticut and never went to the ocean, and of course since I’ve been in Hawaii I’m much more aware. So that we found really interesting, and it’s hard for people to care about the coral if they don’t know what it is. They think it’s a rock, so what? They don’t realize it’s an animal. It’s also considered a plant because it has algae. It’s a symbiotic organism and it also creates a rock-like structure. Some scientists say it’s all three, but most of the time we call them animals. And the thing is they take thousands of years to create these huge, beautiful reef structures, and they can disappear in just days. That’s how fragile they are.

So once people know what they are, then the second important thing is “What do they do for you?” You know, we have these fire ants here in Hawaii and I could care less if they became extinct because they leave this burn on you that itches, and I don’t know what they’re good for, but the corals do so many things for people. We need to appreciate them and take care of them.

One of the things that I think’s pretty amazing is they supply almost half the oxygen for us. They’re like equivalent to the rain forest or the ocean. That in itself is huge. But they also create livelihood. They spur the economy. Here in Hawaii it’s been estimated they bring in $40 billion just in Hawaii, so you can imagine the billions of dollars worldwide that they help generate. Now if I worked for someone and gave them $40 billion, I would want to be well cared for. You know, that’s common sense. And they protect our coastlines from storms and surges. They provide biomedical research and products. And most importantly, they provide food, because even though they only take up a very small percent of the ocean floor, like less than one percent, they support, they house twenty-five percent of all marine life. I mean, that’s pretty huge.

MF: So if we lose those reefs, all the fish and turtles, everything you see that lives on the reef is also going to be really threatened.

LP: The food that you eat – it fixes a lot of the carbon dioxide. It’s an incredible, incredible ecosystem. But it’s also very fragile. And it only grows, depending on the species, anywhere from two millimeters to a centimeter. So imagine if you shaved your head and every year your hair would only grow two millimeters. But our hair doesn’t give us what the coral does. I’m just saying that once people learn about them I think that they care. I think people really do care. One of my friends had people visiting from the mainland and they had seen our film on Hawaiian Airlines. So they were in Kona and they only went snorkeling once because they didn’t want to harm the coral. I thought that was so sweet. That wasn’t necessary. All they had to do was use the proper sunscreen. And so that’s why we need to educate people. You can still have your life, you can still have your fun. There are alternatives that are available.

MF: So we made a film called Reefs at Risk that focuses on two of the most harmful chemicals in sunscreen, and those are like you said: oxybenzone and octinoxate. And these chemicals are really prevalent. They’re found in about 70% of the sunscreens sold on the market. The sunscreen industry’s pretty large. It’s $10 billion a year, year after year. And it’s estimated that 14 thousand tons of sunscreen chemicals enter the coral reefs specifically each year. That’s kind of hard to imagine on a large global scale, but if you look at a beach like Trunk Bay, which is in the U.S. Virgin Islands, it gets 2000 people a day. And just the oxybenzone concentration alone, that adds up to over 7000 pounds of oxybenzone going into this one little bay and reef.

One of the main scientists in our film, Dr. Craig Downs, has been surveying reefs around the world for many years and he was at Trunk Bay I think in the 80’s, and the reef was really unhealthy looking. It had a bunch of diseases and tumors, like abnormal growths on the coral, and it was bleaching. It just was really unhealthy, and they were stumped. Him and his team of researchers didn’t know what causing it, because the temperatures were low. All the conditions in the water were perfect. And they came out of the water and were kind of talking about it, and a local person overheard them and said “Oh, it’s all the oil, the sunscreen sheen and the pollution that you can smell in the air and you can see it in the water.”

So we’re not saying that sunscreen is the main cause of coral bleaching worldwide. It’s probably responsible for 15-20% of the reefs’ decline. But the thing is that it’s impacting the reefs that are most heavily visited by people. And we can get into the science, too, if you want.

DJ: Let’s do that in a moment. So was that when people really first made the connection between sunscreen and coral death, was it in the 80’s?

MF: Yeah. These scientists had never thought about that before. And it makes so much sense now, that here we are introducing pounds and pounds of these chemicals that are toxic to all forms of life. So for coral, the concentrations in the water can be quite high. So what they did was they were observing this and had this hypothesis and then they went and created experiments in their lab that showed results that oxybenzone can cause DNA damage in coral and reduce their fertility. It kills coral larvae, so if a coral reef is bleached or killed from something like climate change, if oxybenzone is present – Coral reefs can recover from a bleaching incident. It doesn’t always happen and often it will cause them to die. And coral bleaching is when the algae that is inside the coral and gives it all of its energy, about 90% of its energy, the coral will expel it because the conditions aren’t right, the temperature isn’t right or something isn’t right. And when it expels that algae the coral becomes weak and it gets sick and it’s not getting its food from the sun. But it can recover if the conditions improve, if the water temperatures go down or the pollution improves. But the thing is that oxybenzone is so destructive at such a low concentration. It happens at 62 parts per trillion, which is the equivalent of one drop of oxybenzone in six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools. So that’s the concentration that can harm; it’s called a coral planula, or larva. And they usually float on the surface of the water. They can travel, and that’s how coral reefs can grow to different areas. But what will happen is instead of it attaching to the reef, the oxybenzone causes it to encase itself – like, its skeleton grows so fast around its body that it just becomes trapped in this skeletal bubble and it can’t attach to the reef and start to grow outward.

So it’s really quite concerning because we’re having so many mass bleaching events worldwide, and then the concentrations in the waters at popular swimming spots are high enough, as shown in the lab, to cause issues.

LP: And because of this planular death, you’re not seeing any new generations coming online. You might be at a coral reef and you might see some coral but you don’t see any young generation coming up. And that’s because the oxybenzone is fat soluble. It floats to the surface where the planula go and does exactly what Malina said; it encases itself. It makes its own coffin. So we need the new generations.

MF: Yeah. And we need them to be healthy and fertile. They’re animals, so they release eggs and sperm. People don’t think of it that way. They just think of it as rock.

So coral bleaches at a certain temperature, like when it gets to the high 80’s, around 87°F it starts to get stressed out. But if oxybenzone and octinoxate are present at a certain concentration, in the lab it bleached within 96 hours at a much lower temperature. It caused the temperature at which coral bleached to be reduced by around ten degrees. So the thing is that coral isn’t just being exposed to chemicals in sunscreen. It’s not just being affected by climate change or all the other factors. It’s being hit from all different angles, so it’s all these cumulative effects that are stressing it out. So we’re trying to get the message across that this is one thing we all can do. Consumers can change immediately by buying sunscreens that are mineral based, that use non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. But they have to be non-nano. There are studies that also show – I mean, these minerals go on a bit white, so the industry has changed these naturally occurring minerals nature to be so small that they get in and also disrupt and affect the coral. So you have to make sure that it says “non-nano.” The industry’s not required to label it if it is nano, so you have to make sure that you’re looking at a brand – usually you can get them from the health food store. And they are a little bit more expensive, but again, coral reefs are so valuable and so precious. So we think it’s really something worth putting your money into. And you can also use hats or clothing, sun-protective clothing. So it’s just one little thing that we can do that helps the reefs immediately, but also it’s not enough for just consumers, one by one, to become aware of this issue. We need changes to happen on a federal level. We need many countries to start banning this chemical so that the industry decides to just voluntarily no longer use it. That would be nice.

LP: I think, with using your purchasing power, the industry will change. That’s usually the thing that does it.

MF: Money.

LP: I think as more and more people buy these healthier sunscreens the price will go down. And you don’t have to use as much. Like you said, you can put a shirt on. You can use a hat. On these other things you spray all over yourself, these aerosol sprays are expensive because most of the spray doesn’t go on your body. Most of it goes on the sand. Now that’s very detrimental, because when a tide comes up it’s going to bring it back into the ocean, so there’s more and more toxicity.

MF: We talk a lot about coral as a foundation of the marine ecosystem, but also these chemicals are bound to harm other marine life. Sea urchins’ sperm count and fertility has gone down, and it’s been linked to oxybenzone. There have been studies on fish embryos, and they’ll be exposed to like one part per billion of oxybenzone and just look completely deformed. And something interesting about these chemicals; oxybenzone, the chemical structure of this compound is similar to estrogen, so our bodies and other bodies in marine life, when it bonds to your cell receptors it kind of mimics estrogen. So there’s this great study out of U.C. Riverside.

They were looking at a sewage discharge. Because also if you use these products inland, if you’re not at the ocean, if you put sunscreen on and you’re playing tennis or going hiking in nature and you urinate, you pee, that flushes down the toilet, it goes to the wastewater treatment facility. They’re not able to filter out these chemicals. They’re so small. So they end up in our rivers. They’re affecting the reproduction of fish, again because they act like estrogen. Male fish have lower fertility and lower sperm count. And in this one study that I’m citing from, they were looking at a sewage discharge place off of Huntington Beach, so the sewage was going into the ocean off Huntington Beach, and they were collecting turbot and sole, and they found that two-thirds of the male fish had ovarian tissues growing in their testes. They sampled the tissue because they wanted to know what was causing this. And they sampled it, and oxybenzone was the chemical that was found present in that tissue. They looked at other estrogenic chemicals as well but the study confirmed that it was oxybenzone. This stuff is so biocumulative and so persistent that it’s found in everything from otters, orcas, it’s in dolphin breast milk. It’s in human breast milk. The CDC did a study that found it in 97% of humans, because whether you’re getting it from your drinking water, which it contaminates, our drinking water and our aquifers, or whether you’re getting it from seafood. It’s terrifying. And this is just one chemical, right? One chemical out of 80 thousand plus. It’s an overwhelming topic. But at the same time it’s something that; we all have the power to choose which products we buy, which companies we support, whether we’re using toxic – like, whatever we use in our household that will eventually make its way into the ocean. Sewage is the term and the root of that word is “seaward.” So if you’re using toxic laundry detergent or dish soaps or personal care products, that stuff – our oceans are just a dumping ground for all of our waste, whether it’s plastic or chemical based.

LP: It’s really sad how the oceans are carrying the brunt of all this toxicity. There are two sewage plants; one’s in Boulder, Colorado and one’s in Vancouver, Canada; which do filter out most of these chemicals. I hope in time that other sewage treatment plants can change and strive for that kind of excellence. It also affects humans, too. Hirschsprung’s disease is an issue that newborns are faced with, which deals with the intestines. They’re not able to poop so a lot of times they need surgery. Benzophenones, for which oxybenzone is a substitute, were voted Allergen of the Year by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2014 and who knows what other effects it’s causing. It’s estrogenic.

And there are other chemicals in sunscreens that are harmful, too. These are the two that are getting the most attention right now, primarily because oxybenzone is the most prevalent one used. Octinoxate is even more toxic but it’s not used as much. And so that was what the bill this year, that was passed, banned those two in Hawaii and that’s a start. We’d like to have – if I could have my way I would just immediately ban it all right now. I mean, the FDA not that long ago had to recall a lot of romaine lettuce that had some E. coli in it. They’re able to act on that right away, but the cosmetic and body care industry doesn’t really have much regulation. But to wait two and a half years – I mean, the scientists have been sounding the alarm bell for decades, and finally we’re starting to listen. But two and a half years is a long time away and if we could just ban it right now, whatever it takes to ban it, because these reefs are so sensitive to such minute amounts, I mean when you’re talking about parts per trillion. And people go to the areas that have the most beautiful corals. So if we could, through education, right now, is what we’re trying to do for the next two and a half years until the bill takes effect. And then again, it’s just banned in Hawaii, the sale of it. We hope that the mainland follows suit. There are other – Palau banned sunscreen in their Jellyfish Lake. They have tourists come. That helps support their economy. They don’t want to ruin that. We seem to be the only species that destroys our own food and drink and air and doesn’t provide a safe environment for future generations. It’s a really odd thing. We’re almost … we need to do something about that.

DJ: This is a really central example of the destructiveness of this culture, because the example you’re talking about should in many ways be really easy since the octinoxate, for example, is – I mean, it’s not used – it’s unnecessary. Where I live, we have to fight people all the time who are using off-road vehicles in endangered species habitat or destroying someplace or another with offroad vehicles. You would think that would be a really easy fight because basically offroad vehicles are just toys for adults. And the same with this, that this octinoxate, a very dangerous chemical, is used in sunscreens and lip balm. It’s not like it’s providing a necessity of life, is what I’m getting at. This one seems so much easier to deal with than something that was more central to … here’s what I’m saying. You’re not talking about getting rid of somebody’s health care.

MF: We agree completely. We think it’s such a simple solution. There are so many UV blockers and there are two great natural ones that don’t show toxicity. They’ll do studies with the zinc and the titanium on the coral planula, and they’re completely fine. But there’s so much opposition from industry. There are lobbyists from the health care industry and from the sunscreen industry and the chemical industry. They were all there in Honolulu last year, lobbying like crazy to get all these bills blocked. And last year they were successful, and not a single bill; they introduced I think 12 bills about oxybenzone and sunscreen pollution, and not a single one was passed. And this year the bill was passed, but it was kind of compromised. The bill doesn’t take effect for two and a half years, it only bans two chemicals when there are more that are harmful, but it bans the two worst ones, and it’s just in sunscreen, and like you said, they’re in lip balm. Any lotion or daytime cream or even makeup that claims an SPF factor. Turn it over and read the ingredients. It likely has oxybenzone. And oxybenzone is one of the favorites of the chemical industry because it blocks UVA and UVB rays. So they’re saying “Oh, if you get this off the market and don’t allow its sale, you’re jeopardizing the health of all the visitors and residents of Hawaii.” So they’re doing all these scare tactics, but there are many other chemical ingredients, and zinc is more effective at blocking UVA and UVB rays. So we think it’s just kind of a silly thing that they’ve used to buy themselves time. They’ve gotten themselves three and a half years, effectively, in this last year; to reformulate their products.

And the sad thing is this bill won’t take effect in Hawaii for two and a half years. And our reefs are so important, and it’s been proven that these chemicals are harming them, and the safer alternatives already exist. So in an ideal world, it would be like all the Walmart and other big box stores could change what they’re selling in six months, or maybe in a year. If they could take the products that already exist on the market, that use healthier formulas, and just trade them out. But they want to keep their contracts with the big brands, like Hawaiian Tropics and Banana Boat. They want to keep the same brands on their shelves, but differently formulated.

DJ: So earlier you mentioned two numbers, and I want to put them together. You said one drop per every six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools, and then you also said the amount of; I don’t remember whether it was one of these chemicals or sunscreen in general, that was put into one bay per day.

MF: It wasn’t per day. That was a per year calculation. In Hawaii there’s a bay called Hanauma Bay, and it’s beautiful; it’s on Oahu and it gets over 3000 visitors a day. So they calculate the average person is there for four hours, and in four hours you use two point something ounces of sunscreen. They do this calculation, and then oxybenzone is usually found in a concentration between three and seven percent in a sunscreen formula. And in this particular one, they went on the lower end. They calculated it at three percent oxybenzone. So they said that over a whole year that would be over 150,000 pounds of sunscreen going in this one bay. It’s a nature preserve, which is the ironic part. All the coral is completely dead. The coral’s not very healthy there at all. But what do you expect with that many people?

So with over 150,000 pounds a year, three percent of that would be over 4,500 pounds of just oxybenzone. And then you have the octinoxate, the homophthalates, the other benzones, the parabens, all the synthetic fragrance that you can smell before you even get to the beach. So there are just all these other chemicals. It’s startling, and it is at those concentrations, above those 62 parts per trillion.

DJ: I’m sorry if I’m asking a question to which we don’t know the answer, but how does octinoxate or oxybenzone break down? Or do they?

MF: They’re pretty persistent. One report said they have a half-life of 90 days, and others say that it’s even longer. And the thing is, even if it’s being exposed in this one heavily trafficked bay, the tides and currents can bring it to other places.

DJ: So 90 days; I mean that’s horrible in the short term but this is not like carbon dioxide. This is not a long-term problem and if they solved it this problem could actually go away in a couple of years.

MF: Ideally, yeah. It’s not like plastic.

DJ: If they stop dumping it in, it will go away.

MF: Yeah. And we’ve seen that. There’s one beach on the big island – I’m sorry, it may have been on Maui. But there’s a certain time of year that certain species of coral spawn. There will be like one night, I think it’s usually on a full moon, that they will reproduce. And they actually close this beach the day before, or a couple of days before, to reduce the sunscreen amount there. So there are little actions that we can take to try to improve the reefs, at least from the local factors. I mean, I don’t have the solution for climate change or ocean acidification. But I’m sure you know people that do, or you do. But with us in Hawaii it’s just sad to go to beaches and be able to smell the pollution in the air. You go into the water – we don’t use sunscreen but you come out and you still have the oil on your skin, because it’s just so polluted.

But yeah, I think that if we could stop using these chemicals we would see a bit of improvement in these heavily visited reefs. But also, the sad thing is that we’re seeing a lot of brands now claim to be reef-safe, and they’ll put it in their name, they’ll put it on the front of the package: “reef safe.” And people buy it, thinking that they’re doing the right thing. But you turn it over and you read the ingredients and it doesn’t have oxybenzone, but it has avobenzone and homosalate and parabenzone and these other chemicals. I still don’t consider those sunscreens to be safe. I think if you’re looking for a healthy product it should have things like beeswax, although we heard even beeswax can have contamination from pesticides. Maybe coconut oil or more ingredients based from nature that sound familiar and more edible. Like there’s a saying that if you can’t say it, don’t spray it.

LP: And the other thing that’s important that often gets overlooked is that we need certain rays from the sun, and sunscreens block all of them. So it’s important to go out and get some sunshine. You just don’t want to get too much. You don’t want to get burned. So that’s important to keep in mind, too.

MF: Something else that’s interesting is: these chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate in the aerosol sprays especially, because like Lynn was saying, so much of it is wasted. If you’re somewhere and it’s windy, up to 80% of that sunscreen spray can go into the environment. And there are places where – we took a photo of an area, a patch of grass that was completely killed except for where someone’s feet were, so you could tell that they were spraying their ankles, and I guess golf courses are wanting to ban sunscreen because it’s ruining their grass, but it was just a story I heard the other day, that there was a field trip with a bunch of students in Illinois, to a community garden, and they all put on a bunch of aerosol sunscreen, and the next week some of the garden beds where they were standing and applying it were dead. So this stuff is also toxic to the plankton. There is a professor, a researcher from Cornell University, Sean McCoshum, and he was swimming over at the Captain Cook Monument on the Big Island, and this is one of the most beautiful reefs that we have left in Hawaii. I maybe shouldn’t say that publicly because we try to protect it. But there’s this one particular place where everyone gets into the water. It’s shallower and easier to get in there. And he observed that there was nothing growing on the walls in the ocean. There was no – usually you see some seaweed or moss, and there are a bunch of shells or crabs against the wall. And he observed that it was just a dead zone. And that if you swam a hundred yards away it was healthy. So that’s another case where you’re look at a micro place where it’s like okay: this is dead right here where the sunscreen oil and residue gets hit by the wave and brushes up against the rock and there’s nothing growing there. So it blocks vitamin D production in humans, but it is also blocking photosynthesis or just being toxic to other organisms.

LP: So what would be great, if we could all figure out a way this could happen quicker. I think the sunscreen companies have a responsibility to make the changes, but if it’s encouraging to them, I don’t know if a portion of the tax dollar could be reallocated from one place to another to help them with their changes, if that’s what it takes. Whatever it takes to get this done sooner. And it isn’t just about sunscreen. We’re doing a feature documentary called “The Coverup.” And it’s about the toxic chemicals in cosmetics and body care products. This part on the sunscreen was basically just a portion of that film that we’re working on.

And it’s interesting that National Geographic had an article that said that three million tons of cosmetics enter oceans each year. And it’s not just cosmetics, it’s also our pesticides and everything that goes down our drains, that goes into our body and out through the urine. Anything that washes off our body. I think it’s important that we really start to make some big changes soon. So whatever it takes; if it takes money, okay. We have to think more about what’s important than about money.

MF: The chemical industry’s highly invested in – if a chemical’s banned it makes the whole chemistry industry sort of look bad. They try really hard. They lobby really hard and they care a lot about their image, but they’re just producing so many – I mean, we have figures for oxybenzone, but I can’t even imagine how many toxic chemicals are pumped out into our environment every day. It’s tragic.

LP.: There are so many chemicals being produced, and not enough testing is done. Especially in the old days, a lot of, like asbestos and DDT and all these things. Cigarettes, smoking cigarettes. All these things no one thought were harmful. And so the same thing now. Once we discover that something’s harmful, we have a responsibility to substitute it, change it, get into green chemistry, to do something. We need to protect our environment for future generations. We need to protect our food, our air, our water. Are we going to make ourselves become extinct? We’re cutting off nature, the hand that feeds us.

MF: It’s really sad because I think coral polyps were one of the first species to evolve on our planet. They were here before humans. They were here before dinosaurs. There are statistics that about 50% of the world’s coral reef have declined in the last 30 years. So for these species, these forms of life to have been around for so many millions of years, and to see them vanishing before our eyes in maybe a sixty year span – I mean, there are some predictions that maybe by the year 2050, 90% of our coral reefs will be gone. I can’t even imagine what types of effects that would have, if 25% of marine life live or depend on coral reefs. And then you’re also affecting everything up the food chain, all the larger marine life. I mean, it would be tragic to lose our reefs.

LP: It’s not just simple, like losing one species, though I do believe every species has a part. But when you’re losing the coral reefs, you’re losing 25% of the marine life. You’re losing food for people who depend on fishing and small communities. It’s a really big deal.

MF: So sometimes people will laugh at the idea of sunscreen or scoff it off. But we shouldn’t be scoffing off anything that contributes. We should try to be minimizing all of them, to reduce fish stress.

DJ: This, again, is a particularly easy one. So you mentioned Palau banning sunscreen in Jellyfish Lake. Are there other places around the world – is Hawaii the first place to ban it, or are there other places around the world that have banned some sunscreens, or banned these particular chemicals?

MF: Palau did it, but just for one specific lake. Again, it was visited by so many people, and the jellyfish were getting contaminated. But Mexico has done some bans too. There are certain areas where they protect their reefs and they do education at the parks. And there are places called cenotes, which are these beautiful kind of underground freshwater pools, and they don’t allow sunscreen in there either. So there are places in the world that have taken steps and action to restrict the use. But I think that’s more through signage. Hawaii has become the first place in the world to pass a bill that bans the sale. In two and a half years, if you come to Hawaii, you won’t be able to find a sunscreen on the shelf that contains oxybenzone or octinoxate. And that’s one feedback we get from our film, is people say “Well, I went to Hawaii, I brought the non-nano zinc sunscreen. I used it up and went to look for more and they didn’t have this option available at the store.” So we have to solve that part of the problem, too. We can educate people, but they need to be able to find and have a safe option right in front of them.

So yeah. Hawaii has become the first place in the world, which is huge – I mean, this is historic, even though the bill has its weaknesses and it won’t take effect for awhile, it still has happened. Now U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard (Ed. note: and the Center for Biological Diversity) is looking to introduce it federally, and other countries are looking to – I think in the coming years we’re going to see many other countries ban these chemicals. So it’s encouraging.

DJ: How did the two of you get started on this issue?

MF: We’re actually a mother-daughter team. I can’t remember growing up and ever really – like, most parents slather their kids in sunscreen, right? I don’t remember that ever happening. My mom made me wear a visor all the time, or we’d sit in the shade, and we’d go later in the day. We were always very conscious of not getting sunburnt. I don’t think I was ever sunburnt in my whole childhood. And I never used sunscreen. But how we got interested in this – again, my mom is a health practitioner, and so she’s aware of health topics in general. And I have always been an environmentalist and interested in pursuing documentary film. And there was a point in my life when I was in college senior year, looking to do a project, and I wanted to do something environmental, something health related, and I was researching different topics, and I was just walking to class the week I had to pick a topic, and I saw a friend and I gave them a hug, and they had a cologne on them that was so powerful, and I had the most powerful like allergic reaction to it, and it just led me to buy some books about, like I started researching what’s in our cosmetics. I thought I was a health-conscious person, an environmentally conscious person, but I wasn’t aware that “Oh, I’m using shampoo that has all these toxic ingredients in it that harm my health and the environment.”

So we’d been working on this feature film, and while we were working on the feature film we had this chapter about sunscreen, and we were “Oh man, this is like so timely! This is such a timely chapter! Like, Hawaii wants to ban it.” And we actually received a grant from the Redford Center. So Robert Redford and Jamie Redford, over – we were flown to Sundance in Utah. It’s a really cool mentorship program. If there are any people out there interested in doing an environmental film, they really support environmental filmmakers that create change.

So anyway, we got this grant and we had to produce a short film with it. And we thought the timing of this bill and everything is so right, we should just put out this chapter, this section of our feature film. And it’s had really great success. Upworthy just featured it, and we’ve worked for the last year – it only took us a month or two to make the short film, a really intensive two month period. But we’ve been working for a year to get it seen, and it’s educating people coming to Hawaii on Hawaiian Airlines. So we want to do more outreach with it. We’re also editing our feature film, which is going to be, I think, more important. We’re just talking about oxybenzone, which is one chemical, and again that’s an easy thing, to get one chemical out of the way, that’s toxic. But when you look at cosmetics and personal care products as a whole, there are thousands of chemicals in them. And the European Union has much stricter standards for everything, for food, for all sorts of things. But they banned over 1300 chemicals from use in cosmetics, because they’re toxic to aquatic life, or they’re, whatever; they show environmental and human health concerns. And the FDA has only banned 11. So we think that needs to change.

So that’s the long story of how we got started. But also just, I mean, my mom’s been in Hawaii for 35 years, if you want to talk about the reef. She’s seen the reef decline.

LP: There is, well, there was a beautiful beach, over on the Kona side, Kahalu’u. That was one of my favorite places. I mean, you would go in there, and there were so many tropical fish. It was unbelievable. Just swarming all around, schools of all different sizes, colors and everything. Now when you go there, there’s nothing. And when we were filming there, one of the ladies who was doing the underwater diving that we were filming; I wish I’d had the camera on her when she came out of the water. I was watching the equipment. She came out and said “Oh, this just stinks of sunscreen!” It was totally candid and I just wish I’d had it on camera. And it’s true. You go there and you can smell it.

And I’d go to Hanauma Bay, too, and I’d see these foot-long fishes, knee-high. It was just unbelievable. In just the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen it change so much. And then unfortunately Wai Opae was one of the most beautiful reefs left, and it’s close. It’s like a half an hour from where we live.

MF: It’s in our film, all the big beautiful coral.

LP: And that got covered by the lava, so we don’t have that anymore.

MF: This is really close to where we live, where the lava eruption is happening. Just the most beautiful coral reef in Hawaii, in our humble opinion, that we’ve been trying to preserve through the sunscreen issue and other, and pesticide runoff, and cesspools. It’s all these factors, again, affecting the coral. So we’ve been trying to help, and just, we saw this reef completely disappear in a day, by lava. So that’s a natural cause, but it was devastating and people were crying and grieving like it was the loss of a child, really. This was just such a special place. But it put into perspective for us how fragile these ecosystems are, and how you could have a coral bleaching event, you could have a hot summer, an El Niño event, and the same thing could happen in the course of a month; you could see a reef disappear. But lava’s a little bit more definitive.

LP: Even if the oxybenzone takes 90 days to break down, it doesn’t matter how many days it takes. If you have visitors going in the water with sunscreen on every single day, even if it only lasted 24 hours, it’s a constant thing.

MF: If we can change it, we can see improvements.

LP: We can change some of our pollution and overfishing. There are lots of stressors, even in your own life there are several stressors, but when you have too much stress, that’s when you can have a breakdown and get sick, or something can happen. But usually a little bit of stress is good, makes you strong, keeps your immune system going. But the coral can just handle so much. So whatever we can do, we need to do.

MF: And your listeners might be interested in learning more, so they can watch our film. Originally we made an eleven minute version, which is on YouTube, and then just this past year we, or just a month ago, really; we put out a four and a half minute version because people seem to have shorter and shorter attention spans. But I get the feeling that your listeners might be interested in reading this book that was really helpful to us when we were making and researching this film. We did the filming and the editing and the pre-production in about two months, but we had researched it for half a year before. But there’s a book by Dr. Elizabeth Plourde and it’s called “Sunscreens Biohazard: Treat as Hazardous Waste.” It’s a very powerful, well-researched book with just tons of citations in the back. I’m trying to see how many. There are like 508 citations and references. And it’s just an excellent book that goes really in depth, because again, we just made a short film. We could have made it a lot longer. Sometimes it’s hard to get everything you want in a short version. So we recommend people watch the eleven minute version, and the short one has the update about the legislation passing.

DJ: And I guess the last question for today – we only have like a minute or two left – the last question is: if somebody lives in a place that either (a) does have coral, or (b) does not have coral, what can they do to help get their locality, or to help get some other locality, to ban these chemicals?

MF: Great question. There are also people who live inland – there are a lot of programs like Inland Ocean Coalition that are trying to connect people who don’t live anywhere near a reef, to be involved. But yeah, the great thing would be if you could contact your local representatives. You could get it passed on a county level but it would be better to contact your state senators and representatives. And again, we can contact our leaders over in Washington, DC, and we’re hoping to see in the next year – Tulsi Gabbard (U.S. Representative) has expressed interest in doing federal legislation. No matter where you are in the world, you can send our film to them as a way to introduce it to them. You could send them an article you read or the studies Dr. Craig Downs of the Haereticus Lab; he’s the one who’s done a lot of these studies. Just composing a short, concise little email about why reefs matter to you and why this topic is something that, like you said, we can change, and sending it to your readers.

LP: One thing that I thought was interesting when we were on the East Coast filming Ralph Nader for our feature film. He said something that kind of caught me by surprise, but when I had time to think about it, you know, he was right. He said that the consumer is very responsible. We’re holding up the industry a lot. The industry wants to give the consumer what they want. So the consumer needs to become more civically oriented and not so consumer oriented. It’s up to the consumer to make some changes, to educate themselves and other people, to take these steps that Malina just said: contact your representatives. Show them this film. We showed all our representatives our film a year ago. Just get involved. Make the difference. Don’t buy these products.

MF: And people might say “Oh, I like the other sunscreen more.” That it smells better or this one goes on a little white. It’s true: you might not like it as much but you can keep trying to find products until you find one you like. There are great ones out there. But again, if the consumer can realize that the coral is maybe more important than what scent you want in a sunscreen.

LP: We have had a lot of samples from companies and some of them are just fantastic.

MF: And we recommend some companies, also, on our website.

LP: So you can buy it online. You can go to your health food store or you can ask your other big chain stores to stock this. The consumer needs to request, require, demand. Use your purchasing power. The industry will follow. The stores will follow.

DJ: Well thank you so much for all of your work in defense of coral. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guests today have been Lynn Pelletier and Malina Fagan. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on September 2nd — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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