The Florida legislation will go into effect in 2021 in an effort to protect the world’s third-largest barrier reef ecosystem.
The planet’s coral reefs are in trouble. Like many organisms and habitats, they are suffering from a number of assaults courtesy of modern humankind. One such adverse contribution is the preponderance of sunscreen chemicals that swimmers and beachgoers are unwittingly rinsing off into the sea. Scientists have long suspected that sunscreens contribute to coral bleaching events, even finding that minuscule amounts can have a big effect on developing corals.
Oxybenzone kills polyps by deforming their cells, damaging their DNA and triggering the release of hormones that cause the young corals to encase themselves in skeleton … just one drop of oxybenzone in a volume of water equivalent to 6.5 Olympic swimming pools can be harmful to corals.
Hawaii made big news last year when the state announced they would begin banning the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, common ingredients in over 3,500 sunscreens.
And now, Key West, Florida has voted to follow The Aloha State with a ban of their own. The measure was approved this week by the City Commission in a 6-to-1 vote, and will ban sales of sunscreens containing the same chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate. Like Hawaii’s legislation, the Florida law will also go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021, reports Karen Zraick in The New York Times.
And not a moment too soon. The Florida Keys play home to the world’s third-largest barrier reef ecosystem – a nearly 150-mile long ocean wonderland where thousands of species of marine organisms live. It is the only living coral barrier reef in the continental United States … and it has been suffering.
“Our coral has been under attack by a number of stressors,” Key West Mayor Teri Johnston says. “We just thought if there was one thing we could do, to take one of the stressors away, it was our responsibility to do so.”
The Miami Herald reports that somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen washes off into reef areas every year.
People with medical prescriptions will be allowed to purchase the banned sunscreens from their doctors. First-time offenders will be issued a warning, second offenses will be met with a fine that is yet to be determined.
Critics of the legislation are fretting about skin cancer. But nobody is forcing anyone to go burn themselves in the sun. (And there is some very interesting research questioning the importance of sunscreen in the first place, going so far as to suggest that current guidelines for sun exposure are unhealthy and unscientific.)
Regardless, there are alternative sunscreens that don’t kill the ocean’s precious organisms. The National Park Service recommends sunscreens that contain titanium oxide or zinc oxide, two ingredients that have not been found to wreak havoc on corals. There are also sun hats and umbrellas, rash guards and sun protective clothing, and other ways to avoid too much sun exposure. The consumer health and environment watchdog Environmental Working Group (EWG) also has a great guide for healthy sunscreens here.