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Akerlof leads research team in Hawaii to study environmental impacts from sunscreen

ESP graduate students Kim Magalona and Jacqueline Loevenich
ESP graduate students Kim Magalona and Jacqueline Loevenich. Photo provided.

Karen Akerlof, Assistant Professor, Environmental Science and Policy, led a research team at Cape Lookout National Seashore in North Carolina and at the 'Ai'opio Fishtrap in Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park in Hawai'i, surveying visitors about their sun protection behaviors, awareness of environmental impacts from sunscreen, and exposure to National Park Service (NPS) outreach and education programs.

In summer 2021, in partnership with Craig Downs from Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL), one of the leading global scientists on sunscreen ecotoxicology, Akerlof’s team of three graduate students conducted water and sand sampling to assess the parks’ sunscreen chemical contamination.

Research demonstrates that common chemical ultraviolet (UV) filters in sunscreen pose risks to corals and other aquatic species. In the United States, laws have passed in Hawaii and the Virgin Islands banning specific sunscreen chemicals to protect corals. However, federal-level policies have yet to be established. In lieu of regulatory guidance, federal agencies—like NOAA, EPA, and NPS—provide the public with information about sun protection options that likely mitigate environmental impacts.

Since fall 2019, Akerlof led a NPS funded research project that combines social science with ecotoxicological research. The project aims to provide recommendations for park managers to reduce sunscreen chemical contamination from visitors at both coral reef and non-reef parks.

Akerlof’s research expects to develop audience information that can be used to assess the effectiveness of NPS’s current outreach with visitors on sun protection and make recommendations to inform future decisions in protection of these public lands.