Key West Bans Sunscreen Containing Chemicals Believed to Harm Coral Reefs

FILE Ñ Kali Gough, left, and Allie Harris, center, apply sunscreen as they prepare to lay out at Siesta Public Beach in Sarasota, Fla., June 14, 2011. Avoiding non-biodegradable sunscreen may be the one solution to coral bleaching travelers have the most immediate and direct influence over. (Chip Litherland/The New York Times)

Key West, the sunny city at the southernmost tip of Florida, voted this week to ban the sale of sunscreen containing chemicals believed to harm coral reefs.

The law’s supporters see it as a crucial step toward protecting the great treasure of the Florida Keys: the world’s third-largest barrier reef ecosystem, which runs nearly 150 miles, hosts thousands of species of marine life, and attracts divers and snorkelers from around the globe.

The measure, which the City Commission approved Tuesday in a 6-1 vote, will ban sales of sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. The legislation will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021.

“Our coral has been under attack by a number of stressors,” Mayor Teri Johnston said. “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.”

Over the last year, the state of Hawaii and the Western Pacific nation of Palau have also restricted sunscreen sales to protect the otherworldly coral reefs. (Parts of Mexico also ban non-biodegradable sunscreen.) Hawaii’s law bans the same chemicals as Key West’s, and takes effect on the same date. In Palau, 10 chemicals are prohibited, a list that could grow.

Johnston said that people with medical prescriptions would be exempt from the ban, and the first offense would be met with a warning. The second offense would incur fines that are still to be determined.

She added that the reef was crucial to both the environment and the tourism-driven local economy.

The National Park Service says that between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters reef areas each year, and studies have found that the chemicals they contain can damage coral reefs, contributing to “bleaching” and death.

Coral reefs also face grave danger from global warming, but the bill’s supporters argue that sunscreen is easily controlled by individuals. The park service and environmental groups recommend wearing protective clothing and opting for sunscreens that are labeled eco-friendly. Hawaii published a list of sunscreens considered to be “reef safe.”

But some dermatologists and trade groups have opposed the bans, arguing that more research is necessary and that banning sunscreen could lead to higher skin cancer rates. Sunscreen manufacturers have also disputed the claims about the dangers to coral reefs.

In July, an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reviewed the available research and concluded that further investigation was needed. In a news release about the paper, the American Academy of Dermatology reiterated that skin cancer was the most common cancer in the United States, and that people should protect themselves with sunscreen and protective clothing, and by staying out of the sun.

Johnston said there were many sunscreens available without those two ingredients. She said she hoped that the ban would push bigger manufacturers to make and market more eco-friendly sunscreens.

She added that the local government, in coordination with local nonprofits like Reef Relief, would embark on a public education campaign before the law took effect.