Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Science Policy Around the Web – May 4, 2018

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By: Rachel Smallwood Shoukry, PhD


source: pixabay


Hawaii might be about to ban your favorite sunscreen to protect its coral reefs

The state legislature in Hawaii has just passed a bill banning over-the-counter sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and/or octinoxate, which encompasses about 70% of sunscreens. The ban was proposed and passed due to concern over the effect of the two chemicals on coral reefs. If the bill is signed into law by the governor, it will be the first law banning sunscreens to protect a marine environment. They hope that by eliminating these sunscreens from being purchased in Hawaii, they can greatly reduce the amount of the chemicals that end up in the water due after being washed off of swimmers or showered off.

Proponents of the ban cite emerging research that has shown these two chemicals to be harmful to coral reefs. Though only a few studies have been published at this point, their data indicates that the chemicals deplete the reefs of nutrients and cause them to be bleached white. They also pose potential threat to other aquatic life. Researchers found oxybenzone in the waters off of Maui in levels sufficient to cause bleaching in warm waters. Coral reefs are vital for marine ecosystem health, protect coastlines from waves, and are important for tourism, contributing billions of dollars to the tourism industry each year. They have been greatly damaged and threatened in recent decades, with scientists predicting they will soon disappear completely unless significant interventions take place. Locations around the world are implementing measures to preserve their reefs.

There are many opponents of the ban, however. Some scientists feel that the effect of the chemicals is a small contribution among a large number of factors. Rising ocean temperatures, over fishing, other ocean pollutants, and invasive aquatic species all contribute to dying reefs. The Hawaii Medical Association and sunscreen manufacturers believe that more scientific study should be done to merit such drastic action, especially since oxybenzone and octinoxate are some of the most common sunscreen ingredients for blocking UVA and UVB rays, which are known to cause skin cancer. There are sunscreens without these chemicals, however, and the increasing awareness of the threats to coral reefs has inspired the development of natural alternatives.

(Lindsey Bever, The Washington Post)


In Hunt For Golden State Killer, Investigators Uploaded His DNA To Genealogy Site

Progress in the field of genetics has numerous exciting possibilities and implications. These possibilities are accompanied, however, with many difficult questions to answer. Police recently used a publicly-available genetic database to find and arrest the Golden State Killer – one of the country’s most notorious serial killers and rapists. Although DNA forensics were only in their earliest stages at the time when the Golden State Killer was just winding down his activity, police obtained his DNA from several of the crime scenes.

After having no luck with law enforcement genetic databases, police uploaded his DNA to; this site allows people to upload raw genetic data and find others whose data match theirs to some degree, and it warned users that they were not guaranteeing the privacy or security of their data. The matches on the site led the police to a relative, and they were able to look through that person’s family tree and identify a likely suspect based on a profile built during the investigation of the crimes. They then obtained the suspect’s DNA from a discarded item, and when tested, it came back as a match, and Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested.

This story has a good ending – a murderer coming to justice – but it does pose questions that have to be considered in the era of easily obtainable genetic data when millions of people are submitting their DNA to be analyzed. The family member of DeAngelo who submitted a genetic sample probably did not realize that it would lead to the arrest of a relative, and DeAngelo likely also had no idea his relative had done this or that his identity could be traced through it. Some geneticists have cautioned against this very thing, as well as other scenarios that would be equally undesirable (and a point of concern even for law-abiding individuals). While identifying criminals is advantageous, this situation does highlight the fact that users probably do not consider all of the potential ways their data could be utilized and all the potential parties who could access it, either legitimately or through illegal means. There are federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination based on genetics, and an individual’s genetic information is now considered protected health information and is thus protected under HIPAA. However, these large databases that have millions of users’ genetic data primarily regulate themselves beyond that, and even more so when an individual chooses to share their genetics. Experts recommend reading the terms of service very carefully and giving serious thought to any decision regarding sharing of your genetic information.

(Laurel Wamsley, NPR)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 4, 2018 at 8:50 pm

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