Miami Beach considers banning the sale of sunscreens believed to harm coral reefs

Activist shows support for ban on sunscreens that may harm coral reefs

An activist shows her support for a ban on the sale of certain sunscreens at Key West City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.
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An activist shows her support for a ban on the sale of certain sunscreens at Key West City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019.

Following a path already trod by the city of Key West, Miami Beach is considering a ban on the sale of sunscreens containing two chemicals believed to harm coral reefs.

On Wednesday, the City Commission sent a proposal that would prohibit the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate to the city’s sustainability committee for further study. The chemicals — which are commonly found in skincare products and protect against the harmful effects of sun exposure — have been linked to coral bleaching and other damage to coral reefs.

“Miami Beach has always been a leader in environmental issues and I see this as an important item for our environment first and foremost,” said Commissioner Michael Góngora, who sponsored the legislation. Góngora noted that there are FDA-approved alternatives to oxybenzone and octinoxate used in sunscreens that consumers can buy instead.

A motion to approve the ban at Wednesday’s meeting failed, with several commissioners saying they wanted to study the coral reef research and potential public health impacts in greater depth before voting on the proposal.

Hawaii passed a law banning the sale of over-the-counter sunscreens containing these chemicals last year, and Key West passed a similar law last month. Both bans go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021. The Florida Legislature is also considering a statewide ban on the sale of over-the-counter sunscreens containing these chemicals.

Miami Beach’s proposed law, under which violations would be punishable by fines ranging from $250 to $1,000, wouldn’t take full effect until Jan. 1, 2021. The city would start educating stores that sell sunscreen about the new rules in July and help them identify alternative products. Residents and visitors could still buy sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate with a doctor’s prescription.

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 FLKeysNews.com

Coral reefs protect coastlines, generate tourism and shelter fish that people around the world depend on for food, but they are threatened by climate change, overfishing, pollution, coastal development and other factors, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Scientists have recently discovered that some chemicals found in sunscreen also threaten coral reefs, NOAA said on its website. The administration cited a 2016 study that found oxybenzone causes “major toxic effects” in developing coral including susceptibility to coral bleaching, DNA damage and deformities.

Coral reefs aren’t the only marine organisms impacted by the chemicals. “The marine and aquatic life affected ranges from corals to fish, snails, small crustaceans, mussels, sea urchins and [they are] even found in dolphins,” Cheryl Woodley, a scientist with NOAA’s Coral Health and Disease Program, said in an email. “These compounds are known to accumulate in tissues, particularly in fatty tissues and can biomagnify through the food chain.”

The chemicals get into seawater through wastewater and from swimmers wearing sunscreen, NOAA said.

Thousands of tons of sunscreen wash off into coral reef areas each year, according to the National Park Service. The agency recommends sunscreens containing mineral ingredients like zinc oxide, which have not been found to be harmful to coral.

But the sunscreen industry and some dermatologists say that more studies are needed to conclude that these chemicals harm coral reefs. The Consumer Healthcare Products Association and the Personal Care Products Council, two trade associations representing sunscreen manufacturers, argued that banning the sale of products containing these ingredients could discourage people from using sunscreen.

“A ban would be a bad policy based on very limited and questionable environmental studies, compared to the large body of undeniable evidence regarding the consequences of excess sun exposure, such as skin damage and skin cancer,” Carlos Gutierrez, vice president of state and local government affairs for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, said in a statement. “Additionally, overwhelming scientific evidence points to global warming as the primary danger causing changes in the marine environment in Florida, not sunscreens. The proposed ban is unlikely to have a positive effect on Florida’s environment but it will have a profound negative impact on the health and well-being of residents and visitors in Miami Beach.”

Dermatologists, lobbyists, a skin cancer survivor and the family member of someone who died of skin cancer spoke at the commission meeting on Wednesday to urge commissioners not to limit the types of sunscreen available in Miami Beach. One dermatologist rubbed a mineral-based sunscreen on herself to demonstrate that it wasn’t as easy to rub in and might deter beachgoers from protecting themselves against the sun’s harmful rays.

Miami Beach has banned other items that harm marine life. Last summer, the city expanded a ban on plastic straws to include sidewalk cafes, parks, marinas, piers and docks. Plastic straws can harm birds, turtles and other marine creatures.