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Key West To Ban Popular Sunscreen Ingredients To Protect Coral Reef

Fish swim in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Key West just voted to ban the sale of sunscreens with chemicals linked to coral bleaching.
Wilfredo Lee
Fish swim in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Key West just voted to ban the sale of sunscreens with chemicals linked to coral bleaching.

Key West voted late Tuesday to ban the sale of sunscreens containing certain chemicals linked to coral reef bleaching. The ban is set to go into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

The Key West City Commission voted 6-1 to ban the sale, within city limits, of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, the Miami Heraldreports. Some studies have linkedthe chemicals to cellular damage in coral reefs. But industry officials challenged the ban, saying the link between the chemicals and coral bleaching isn't proven.

Only one living coral reef exists in North America, and it lives about 6 miles off the Keys. "We have one reef, and we have to do one small thing to protect that," said Mayor Teri Johnston. "It's our obligation."

The banned chemicals are present in most of the sunscreens on sale in the U.S., NPR has reported. Up to 70 percent of sunscreens on the U.S. market contain oxybenzone, and up to 8 percent contain octinoxate. That includes offerings by Neutrogena, Coppertone and Aveeno.

The industry, as well as some doctors, have fought the Key West ban. At Tuesday's meeting, "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," the Herald reports.

Johnson & Johnson, which sells multiple sunscreens with oxybenzone, argues that concerns about its effects on coral reefs "have led to widespread misinformation about the safety of many sunscreens in the marine environment." The company says "no credible science" exists that shows a link between sunscreens and coral reef bleaching. Johnson & Johnson asserts that, "According to environmental experts around the world, global climate change, ocean acidification, and unsustainable fishing practices are the cause of coral reef bleaching."

Last year, Hawaii became the first state to pass a similar ban, which also goes into effect on Jan. 1, 2021. According to the text of that law, the chemicals "cause mortality in developing coral; increase coral bleaching that indicates extreme stress ... and cause genetic damage to coral and other marine organisms."

In late 2018, the Pacific archipelago of Palau became the first nation to ban sunscreens with the controversial chemicals, NPR's Emily Sullivan reported. A spokesman for the country's president told NPR that the legislation was based in large part on a 2017 report from the Coral Reef Research Foundation that found widespread sunscreen toxins in the popular tourist attraction Jellyfish Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Before the vote Tuesday night, at least one commissioner expressed concern that the city of Key West may be opening itself up to litigation. "I'd rather have the coffers of the state of Hawaii defend the legal challenge," said City Commissioner Greg Davila, according to Heraldreporter Gwen Filosa. "I'd much rather let Hawaii deal with that expense" of a potential legal defense. Davila was the lone dissenter among the commission. He argued that the science wasn't clear, and that residents should have the freedom to choose what sunscreens they want to use.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matthew S. Schwartz
Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").