Florida Keys

Will your sunscreen be banned to protect Keys coral?

The city of Key West will consider banning the sale of certain sunscreens that contain chemicals experts say are dangerous to the coral reef. But the industry is fighting back, saying the science the anti-sunscreen people are using is weak.
The city of Key West will consider banning the sale of certain sunscreens that contain chemicals experts say are dangerous to the coral reef. But the industry is fighting back, saying the science the anti-sunscreen people are using is weak. TNS

What’s in your sunscreen?

Safe chemicals that save you from cancer, says the industry that makes it.

But some scientists say two common chemicals in sunscreens are ruining the world’s coral reefs, which in turn could eventually kill tourism for Key West.

“We’re not seeing new coral,” said scientist Craig Downs, whose 2015 peer-reviewed paper found that two chemicals are helping destroy the coral reefs. “Ninety-nine percent of Florida Keys coral coverage has disappeared in the last 50 years. You lose that last one percent, you’ve got nothing.”

Key West leaders say they’re weighing all the evidence before making a decision on whether to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate within city limits.

A proposed ordinance, which is due for the first of two required readings on Jan. 15, would ban the sale of sunscreens with oxybenzone or octinoxate, “which have been shown to have adverse consequences to coral reefs, and sea life,” according to a memo by Chief Assistant City Attorney Ron Ramsingh.

In July, Hawaii passed legislation to ban the sale of sunscreens containing the two chemicals by 2021, becoming the first U.S. state to do so.

Palau and Mexico have also banned them. Palau banned 10 chemicals commonly found in sunscreen.

“Thirty two other countries are having this same discussion right now because they’re concerned about tourism,” said Downs, who spoke before Key West city commissioners on Dec. 4, urging them to pass the law.

If enacted, Key West’s law would give retailers a year in which to comply without any penalty. After the “educational period,” only a written warning would be given to first-time offenders, followed by a possible $100 fine if there’s a second or subsequent time.

The law isn’t designed to bring any criminal charges.

Still, the industry behind sunscreen is fighting a ban.

bleached coral.jpg
Beginning in 2014, a worldwide bleaching event damaged coral in South Florida and other parts of the planet. Derek Manzello

Coral is definitely “facing a challenge,” said Emily Manoso, an attorney for the Personal Care Products Council , blaming it on global warming and rising sea temperatures.

“We don’t think it’s as clear cut as Dr. Downs has presented,” she said.

An industry representative plans to send a scientific expert to Key West for the Jan. 15 meeting to make another presentation.

The measure also faced some resistance on the City Commission, which postponed a first vote on Dec. 4.

“I don’t like Brussels sprouts too much,” said City Commissioner Greg Davila. “If I get four votes up here, can we as a city ban Brussels sprouts? This is an unenforceable ordinance.”

Davila also said the city shouldn’t affect how families choose to protect their children’s skin from the sun.

The measure is sponsored by City Commissioners Jimmy Weekley and Mary Lou Hoover. Weekley was inspired by a student who appeared at an earlier commission meeting asking for a ban on certain sunscreens.

“I don’t want to take a chance and roll the dice that maybe this isn’t a factor,” Weekley said. “I do hope the county picks up on it. This is probably another factor on why our reefs are deteriorating.”

Potential dangers from sunscreens have been on people’s minds in Key West lately.

The nonprofit Reef Relief in October launched a campaign urging people not to wear certain sunscreens that contain certain chemicals. Last Stand, another Keys environmental protection group, agrees with a ban.

Reef Relief cited a 2011 study that claimed the chemicals harm marine life.

Mill McCleary, of Reef Relief, is excited about Key West’s proposed ban.

“This has been a long time coming,” he said. “We see hundreds of people on multiple trips every day in front of my office. They’re going to mainly the same four reefs.”

Downs, who introduced himself as the foremost expert on the matter and wrote a 2015 peer-reviewed paper that said oxybenzone is threatening coral reefs, said sunscreen pollution doesn’t just effect the sunscreen industry.

“It impacts a whole series of industries including the tourism industry, the restaurant industry — because it’s in the food that you eat - it’s in the water that you drink,” Downs said. “Property values, reputation, tax revenue, legacy — everybody’s affected by it. Eight other scientific groups from around world have corroborated what we’ve seen.”

Downs said there are “Hawaii-compliant” sunscreens readily available on Amazon, Wal-Mart, Walgreens and other retailers.

“They protect just as well or even better than oxybenzone sunscreens,” he said, adding he doesn’t get why the sunscreen industry isn’t moving in the direction of doing away with the chemicals he and others say are destroying coral.

“We don’t know why they’re going the way they’re going,” Downs said. “They could be up here with me joining us, saying, yes, we’ve got commercial products that are safer.”

Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for FLKeysNews.com and the Miami Herald and lives in Key West. She was part of the staff at the New Orleans Times-Picayune that in 2005 won two Pulitzer Prizes for coverage of Hurricane Katrina. She graduated from Indiana University.
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