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Sunscreens have several health issues of their own

EarthTalk
earthtalk@emagazine.com
The Environmental Working Group recommends avoiding spray sunscreens entirely. With so little known about the effects of sunscreen chemicals on the body when rubbed into the skin, they say, we may never know how much worse the effects may be when they are inhaled. Photo by Thinkstock

Dear EarthTalk: Isn’t spray sunscreen a health and environmental nightmare when it seems that more of the sunscreen ends up going up my nose than on the kid at the beach next to me?

Lillian Robertson

Methuen, Mass.

Spray cans of sunscreen may no longer contain chlorofluorocarbons (also known as CFCs, which were phased out in the 1990s for causing holes in the stratospheric ozone layer), but many contain other chemicals that are not good for our health or the environment.

Researchers have found that the chemicals and/or minerals in the vast majority of commercially available sunscreens — even the rub-in creamy or oily varieties — can cause health problems just from ordinary use; inhaling them only magnifies the risks.

And just what are the risks? According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG), there are two major types of sunscreens available in the United States.

“Chemical” sunscreens, the more common kind, penetrate the skin and may disrupt the body’s endocrine system, as their active ingredients (e.g., octylmethylcinnamate, oxybenzone, avobenzone, benzophone, mexoryl, PABA or PARSOL 1789) mimic the body’s natural hormones and as such can essentially confuse the body’s systems. Quite a risk to take, considering that the chemical varieties don’t even work for very long once applied.

Meanwhile, “mineral” sunscreens are considered somewhat safer, as their active ingredients are natural elements such as zinc or titanium. But “micronized” or “nano-scale” particles of these minerals can get below the skin surface and cause allergic reactions and other problems for some people.

EWG recommends sticking with “mineral” sunscreens whenever possible but, more important, taking other precautions to avoid prolonged sun exposure altogether.

“At EWG we use sunscreens, but we look for shade, wear protective clothing and avoid the noontime sun before we smear on the cream,” the group reports.

As for spray varieties, EWG recommends avoiding them entirely: “These ingredients are not meant to be inhaled into the lungs.”

With so little known about the effects of sunscreen chemicals on the body when rubbed into the skin, we may never know how much worse the effects may be when they are inhaled. But suffice it to say: When your neighbor at the beach is spraying down Junior, it’s in your best interest to turn away and cover your nose and mouth.

The root of the problem, according to EWG, is failure on the part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), despite repeated requests from public health and consumer advocates, to implement sunscreen safety standards, some of which were proposed by government scientists more than three decades ago.

EWG only considers a small percentage of the sunscreens on the market — none of which come packaged in spray cans — safe for human use. Some of the top rated varieties come from manufacturers including All Terrain, Aubrey Organics, Badger, Blue Lizard, California Baby, La Roche-Posay, Purple Prairie Botanicals, thinksport and UV Natural. None of the mainstream drug store variety brands appear on EWG’s recommended list. The full list is available on the sunscreens section of EWG’s Skin Deep website.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the major issues with protecting migratory birds that groups like the Nature Conservancy are working on?

Lorinda Bennet

Albuquerque, N.M.

Migratory birds, like other animals, need suitable habitat and food sources to survive. But unlike other animals that stay primarily in one place, migratory birds depend on the availability of food and habitat all along their migration paths, which for some are thousands of miles long.

Changing environmental conditions along routes can hinder birds’ ability to survive their often arduous long-distance journeys.

Some 1,800 of the world’s 10,000 bird species migrate long distances every year. Typically birds fly to the far north in the summer to feed and return south for the winter to breed, but many variations and exceptions exist.

The long-distance record holders are sooty shearwaters, which migrate 9,000 miles between nesting sites in the Falkland Islands and feeding sites in the North Atlantic Ocean off Norway.

Chief among environmental threats to migratory birds is habitat destruction. Human development of wetlands areas leaves many birds without suitable habitat for stopovers and even wintering sites.

Global warming only twists the knife by making usual stopover sites even less hospitable. Biologists see that widespread climate change is already starting to have a negative effect on the timing of migration cycles and breeding patterns, leading to population declines in species already considered threatened.

Hunting is another threat to birds that pass over countries without the resources or will to enforce protections. Obstructions such as power lines, wind farms and offshore oil rigs also negatively affect migratory birds.

A large number of international treaties and domestic laws provide protection for migratory birds.

For example, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 affirms the U.S. government’s commitment to international conventions protecting migratory birds (and their eggs and nests) passing through Canada, Japan, Mexico and Russia at some point during their annual travels. Upward of 1,000 different bird species, as listed on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Program website, are protected under this act.

A similar treaty called the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement seeks to protect migratory birds along another of the world’s major migratory bird flyways.

While governments only do so much to protect migratory birds, private nonprofits are working hard — and devoting millions of dollars — to try to take up the slack. One of the leaders in this battle is the Nature Conservancy, which employs hundreds of ornithologists and planners who identify networks of habitats needed by bird species throughout North America, Latin America and the Caribbean and then work to protect these crucial areas for current and future generations of migratory birds.

Conservancy projects focus on important ecosystems, from the grasslands of the Great Plains to the pine oak forests of Central America and points beyond, identifying and protecting a network of high-quality stopover habitats around the Gulf of Mexico as well as along the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada — and studying how climate change and other environmental factors affect bird migration throughout the Western hemisphere.

EarthTalk is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E-The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free trial issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.