In Florida, the Key West City Commission voted last week to ban the sale of sunscreens that contain two ingredients — oxybenzone and octinoxate — that a growing body of scientific evidence says harm coral reefs.
“This ordinance is just one other thing we can do to help improve and protect our water quality,” said Mill McCleary, of the nonprofit environmental protection group Reef Relief.
But the measure, which passed 7 to 0, isn’t law yet. The commission must review it a second time and pass the measure again before it would become law. The second vote is scheduled for Feb. 5.
Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover said the sunscreen debate reminds her of sex and pregnancy prevention, since different practices — including condom use and abstinence — have a percentage of effectiveness, just as clothing, sunscreen and shade can help minimize the risk of skin cancer.
“They have alternatives to these two chemicals,” said City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley, who sponsored the measure with Hoover. “This is to me something we need to do in this community to protect our economy. What if we don’t pass this and three to five years down the road we have no reef?”
Weekley said people could still get a prescription from a doctor to get sunscreens that contain the two ingredients.
“This may be our last shot. It’s not the major cause of the loss of our reef,” Weekley said. “But this is one reason we can do something about. We can take a step to eliminate those chemicals going into our water.”
Environmental researchers have published studies showing how these two ingredients, which accumulate in the water from bathers or from wastewater discharges, can harm coral reefs through bleaching, DNA damage and ultimately cause the death of corals.
A February 2016 study in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, which examined the impact of oxybenzone in corals in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands, concluded the sunscreen ingredient “poses a hazard to coral reef conservation and threatens the resiliency of coral reefs to climate change.”
Last year, Hawaii banned the sale or distribution of any sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, a measure that will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021. It was the first state in the nation to implement such a ban.
In Florida, the website for the South Florida Reef Ambassador Initiative, which falls under the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, tells divers to “Avoid sunscreens with Oxybenzone and Avobenzone. The benzones are compounds that are lethal to coral reproduction in very small amounts.”
Experts who have studied the issue say sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide also block ultraviolet rays by creating a barrier on the skin.
A study published last year in the American Academy of Dermatology acknowledged there is “emerging evidence that chemical sunscreen ingredients” could affect coral reefs, but said further study is warranted. Dermatologists are concerned that a ban of these ingredients could have an impact on skin cancer rates.