Boracay has been closed due to alleged water pollution and other environmental violations. Allegedly, untreated dirty water coming from kitchens, toilets and canals are directly discharged into the sea resulting in algal blooms and high levels of coliform bacteria. This is probably going on for many years. I saw the comment of a foreign tourist in tripadvisor.com back in 2009 that sewage is being pumped into kiteboarding waters off Bulabog beach on Boracay island.
The sewage problem can be corrected by infrastructure. Right now all establishments are being required to connect to the sewage lines of the island’s service provider. But there is one pollutant which is difficult to control and which up to now is unregulated and has the potential of destroying delicate marine environment. That is sunscreen lotion. Yes, the lotion that protects us from being scorched by the sun has harmful side effects to our corals and other marine creatures.
According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), many sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a chemical that helps filter out the ultraviolet rays that cause skin cancer. Unfortunately, research indicates that it also makes corals more susceptible to the bleaching events that have damaged famed reefs around the world. Other research indicates that it can also harm fish, sea urchins and mammals.
Oxybenzone is part of a family of chemicals that are often added to plastics to prevent them from photo-degrading and to drinking bottles to protect the contents. They also preserve the colours and scents of hundreds of products including hairsprays, soaps and nail polish. Oxybenzone, pass through wastewater plants unfiltered and end up in our rivers and oceans.
Even without the link to coral decline, many countries have restricted the use of oxybenzone because of concerns that it could harm people’s health, for instance by triggering skin allergies. Researchers are also scrutinizing its impact on hormone levels.
According to the US National Parks Service, 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen lotion enters reef areas annually. This does not spread out rapidly or evenly over the entire ocean, but concentrates on popular tourist sites. It is estimated that 90% of snorkeling/diving tourists are concentrated on 10% of the world’s reefs. This means that popular reefs, such as those in national parks, are exposed to the majority of sunscreens.
Several cosmetics firms are already offering “reef-friendly” products that use zinc or titanium oxide instead of the more controversial ingredients. So check the labels of your sunscreen and choose those that contain these ingredients.
Some countries have already taken action to protect vital tourist industries. Mexico allows only “biodegradable” sunscreen in some of its premier marine parks. Lawmakers in Europe and Hawaii have pushed for more sweeping bans. In the United States, the National Parks Service encourages visitors to use alternative products or just to cover up with hats and long-sleeved swimwear. The Philippines which has many beautiful corals like those in the Tubbataha Reef, should also come up with regulations against sunscreens.
By the way, I just found out that sunscreen and sunblock lotions are not the same. Sunblock contains both organic and non-organic ingredients that sit on top of the skin acting as a barrier between your skin and damaging UV rays by reflecting or scattering UVB light. Sunscreen on the other hand penetrates the skin and absorbs the UVA rays before they are able to reach and damage the dermal layer. Sunblocks are formulated to shield against UVB rays, while sunscreens protect against UVA.