Ban on certain sunscreens proposed in Key West

BY PRU SOWERS

KONK LIFE STAFF WRITER

What’s killing the coral reefs around Key West?

That question – critical to the city’s primary industry – came under debate at a recent city commission meeting when Commissioner Jimmy Weekley introduced an ordinance that would ban the sale of sunscreen products containing two active ingredients thought to harm coral, fish and other marine mammals. The ordinance, which requires two votes by commissioners to become law, was postponed when representatives from sunscreen manufacturers asked for more time to present their side of the story.

That story is hotly debated, with the fate of the sunscreen industry, estimated at $1.95 billion in the United States in 2016, set to be impacted if more cities and states ban sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two ingredients found in most sunscreen products. So far, Hawaii is the only state in the U.S. that has banned sunscreen using those two ingredients.

But, according to Dr. Craig Downs from the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, which was instrumental in providing the research that convinced Hawaiian officials to ban the sun care products, there are at least 34 other countries currently looking at similar product bans. He gave a 10-minute presentation to Key West Commissioners outlining the damage oxybenzone and octinoxate can do, including contaminating coral, fish, bird eggs and sea turtle eggs. He pointed to a water test at Ft. Zachary Taylor State Park on March 18, 2017, that showed water just off the beach contained 8,114 parts per trillion of oxybenzone. A 2015 study published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology found oxybenzone had a toxic effect on marine life at a concentration of 62 parts per trillion

“It’s extremely toxic to algae. It’s extremely toxic to sea grass. It’s extremely toxic to fish,” Downs said. “Ninety-nine percent of Florida Keys coral coverage has disappeared in the last 50 years. You lose that [remaining] one percent and you’ve got nothing.”

Downs did not claim that sunscreen alone is killing area reefs. But it is a significant contributing factor to coral bleaching and low reproductive rates for both coral and fish, he said. And the loss of the reefs and contamination of local fish does damage beyond tourism, including influencing commercial fishing, local property values and even the tax revenue Key West pulls in from visitors.

“It impacts a whole series of industries, including the tourism industry and the restaurant industry because it [contaminants] is in the food that you eat. It’s in the water that you drink,” Downs said.

Sunscreen manufacturers appeared to scramble to make their case to commissioners. Two industry representatives spoke at the Dec. 4 city commission meeting asking that their scientists be allowed the same 10 minutes Downs was given. Emily Manoso, spokesperson for the Personal Care Products Council, a trade association representing the cosmetics and personal care industry, said that while her association agrees coral reefs are “challenged,” the cause has not been determined. She blamed the reef die-off on global warming and ocean acidification.

“We dispute exactly where science is on this. We don’t think it’s as clear as Dr. Downs has presented,” Manoso said. “We want consumers to have access to sunscreen so that the rate of skin cancer does not increase.”

Kurt Reynertson, manager of Regulatory & Stewardship Policy at sunscreen manufacturer Johnson & Johnson, also asked commissioners to delay voting on the proposed ordinance until the giant pharmaceutical company could provide its own experts. He predicted that banning sunscreen products containing the two specified ingredients would cause more harm than good.

“If you were to pass this resolution right now, most of the sunscreens on the shelf would disappear,” Reynertson said. “You would be subjecting the people in this community to an amount of risk.”

But Dr. Downs said there are at least 1,500 commercial sunscreen products available in stores or on Amazon that use alternative, effective ingredients such as zinc oxide that won’t damage marine life. And Millard McCleary, executive program director at Reef Relief, said scientific research has proven without any doubt that the two disputed ingredients are harming the local reef, which stretches all the way to West Palm Beach, making it the third largest reef in the world.

“There are numerous effects chemicals such as oxybenzone and octinoxate have on our coral reef ecosystems. These chemicals have been found to damage coral DNA, disrupt critical growth during coral’s juvenile stage, and makes corals more susceptible to disease and bleaching,” McCleary wrote in a statement to commissioners.

The commissioners themselves appeared split on the issue. While everyone agreed that the health of the reef is critical to the city’s economy, there was disagreement on whether a ban would be enforceable and whether the city could – or should – legally ban the sunscreen products.

“I don’t like brussel sprouts too much,” said Commissioner Greg Davila. “So, if I get four votes up here, as a city can we ban brussel sprouts? Maybe we should ban gas vehicles because that certainly causes a problem and that’s a known issue. Or ban alcohol. Alcohol may have caused more damage to the reef than anything.”

Commissioner Clayton Lopez worried about potential toxicity of alternative ingredients such as zinc oxide. And Commissioner Sam Kaufman, while supporting the ban, proposed postponing the vote until more information could be presented in the hopes a ban vote would be unanimous. His postponement resolution passed 5-2.

Commissioner Weekley, who sponsored the ban ordinance resolution, argued against any postponement, saying city officials are the “stewards for the next generation.”

“I believe this is truly the right thing for us to do. We are dependent immensely on the water surrounding our water,” he said, adding, “Global warming obviously is having an effect on our reef. But [sunscreen] is probably another factor in why our reefs are deteriorating.”