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Key West takes first step in banning some sunscreens that experts say damage coral reefs

Activists wanting a ban on the sale of certain sunscreens packed Key West CIty Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.
Activists wanting a ban on the sale of certain sunscreens packed Key West CIty Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. FLKeysNews.com

The Key West City Commission on Tuesday unanimously voted 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.

The measure, which passed 7-0, isn’t law yet, though. 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.

Nearly 100 people turned out for the debate, and 50 people — including dermatologists, boat captains and schoolchildren — signed up to speak on the proposal.

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Key West CIty Hall was packed with people who wanted the commission to pass a ban on the sale of certain sunscreens. Gwen Filosa FLKeysNews.com

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.

SPF, UVA, UVB...what do they all mean? Know the buzzwords and facts needed to protect yourself from the harmful rays of the sun.

“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 damage coral reefs through bleaching and harming the corals’ DNA. In some instances, the corals can die.

A Feburary 2016 study in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology examining the impact of oxybenzone in corals in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands concluded that the sunscreen ingredient “poses a hazard to coral reef conservation and threatens the resiliency of coral reefs to climate change.’’

A team of researchers and students are planting branches clipped from a coral nursery off Key Biscayne.

Last year, Hawaii banned the sale or distribution of any sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, a measure that will go into effect on 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, which are minerals, also block ultraviolet rays. They create a barrier on the skin that deflect the sun’s rays .

A study published last year in the American Academy of Dermatology acknowledged that 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.

In Key West, Commissioner Greg Davila echoed these concerns.

“We will definitely be limiting our residents to the best sunscreens available,” said Davila, who said he researched the sunscreens. “The downside of passing this is cancer.”

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Gwen Filosa covers Key West and the Lower Florida Keys for FLKeysNews.com 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.
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