Key West bans the sale of sunscreens that hurt coral reefs in the Keys

One of the world’s sunniest spots just took a stand on two sunscreen chemicals that scientists have said are hurting the coral reef ecosystem in the Florida Keys.

By a 6-1 vote Tuesday night, the Key West City Commission banned the sale in the city limits of sunscreens that contain the ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate. The ban will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021.

The ban represents an effort to protect the only living coral reef in North America. Researchers have documented how the chemicals have been harming the reef, leading to bleaching, DNA damage and death of the corals.

“We have one reef, and we have to do one small thing to protect that. It’s our obligation,” said Mayor Teri Johnston before the vote, which came at 10:41 p.m. Tuesday.

City Commissioner Greg Davila was the lone dissenter, saying, “We’re not giving residents the freedom to choose what sunscreens they want to use.”

The vote came after more than a hour of public speakers on the issue. Almost all were in favor of the ban.

“Oxybenzone is an oil and it floats on the surface,” said Patrick Rice, chief science and research officer at Florida Keys Community College. “These items should be banned as they have no place in our waters in the Florida Keys.”

Kara Norman, 12, a scuba diver, shows her support for a ban on the sale of certain sunscreens at Key West City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. Gwen Filosa

Hawaii last year became the first state in the country to ban over-the-counter sunscreens that contain the two chemicals, with the new law taking effect Jan. 1, 2021.

Many who support the ban say it’s a step in the right direction to preserve the reef.

“It’s not really not an emotional issue; it’s really just science,” said Joe DiNardo, a toxicologist who worked on the Hawaiian ban. “It’s hard to do something about global warming. We can do something about chemical pollution today and that’s what the whole concept is about.”

Each year, between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen washes off into reef areas, according to the National Park Service, which recommends sunscreens that contain titanium oxide or zinc oxide, two ingredients that have not been found harmful to corals.

People soak up the sun in Key West on Smathers Beach. James Dillon O'Rourke

Like Hawaii’s leaders, Key West city commissioners heard quite a bit from Craig Downs, whose 2015 peer-reviewed paper documented how the two chemicals were helping to destroy the corals.

“At the very least, it’s an incremental stressor in a system that’s already stressed beyond its capacity,” said Rivah Winter, curator of Aquarium Content and Marine Science in Miami.

“At this point, there’s enough evidence to suggest it might be causing some additional stress,” Winter said. “These coral reef systems are incredibly valuable ecosystems that are already stressed. If there’s any little thing we can do like this to make a difference, I think it’s worth pursuing.”

But some branches of government have yet to tell beachgoers to avoid oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Oxybenzone, first approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a sunscreen ingredient in 1978, is recommended in a 2018 traveler’s guide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as something to look for when choosing a chemical sunscreen to block ultraviolet A rays.

Key West locals in favor of the sunscreen ban filled Key West City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019. Gwen Filosa

The multibillion-dollar sunscreen industry fought the ban in Key West, sending in a scientist who said more studies were needed to decide whether the chemicals harm the coral reef.

Some dermatologists and industry lobbyists showed up to say banning the sale of such sunscreens would increase rates of skin cancer and likely discourage people from using any at all.

“That’s just a scare tactic they’re using,” said Dora DeMaria, education coordinator for the group Reef Relief, a Key West nonprofit. “We’ve had sunscreen for a very long time and people are still getting skin cancer.”

“We see this as a public health issue,” said Carlos I. Gutiérrez, of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, which urged the commission to defeat the proposal. “Whether you vote for the ordinance or vote it down, you’re not going to see coral thrive in Key West unfortunately.”

Governments should be encouraging greater use of sunscreen, he wrote in a letter to commissioners.

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 needed.

The CHPA and the Personal Care Products Council, both trade associations, put out a statement before the Key West vote.

The groups said they “urge Key West City citizens and Commissioners to halt the proposal for a sunscreen ban, and encourage the city to conduct more research to understand the real causes of coral decline, such as global warming, pollution, overfishing and agricultural runoff.”

But a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says the research documenting the toxicity of oxybenzone on corals is already extensive.

In a 2017 letter to Hawaii state Sen. Will Espero, Cheryl Woodley, of NOAA’s Coral Health and Disease Program, said enough evidence shows oxybenzone is toxic to coral and threatens overall coral reef health.

“Additional research on the impacts of oxybenzone should not be a prerequisite to management action,” she wrote.

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Activists in Key West turned out at City Hall on Feb. 5, 2019, to support the sunscreen ban. Gwen Filosa
Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for 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.