People over coral?: Florida could ban sunscreen bans

Rep. Tina Scott Polsky, D-Boca Raton, debates on the bill to ban the banning of sunscreen containing ingredients that some researchers say harm coral reefs during session Tuesday March 10, 2020, in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)
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Key West wants to protect the coral reefs that are vital to the southernmost city’s economy. The Florida Legislature is saying not so fast.

A year after Key West voted to ban the sale of sunscreens that contain chemicals researchers say harm coral reefs, the House voted 68-47 Tuesday to prohibit sunscreen bans. The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Bill supporters say the research that says sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate harm coral isn’t solid, while the sun’s ability to cause skin cancer is without question.

“If we don’t have evidence that’s good, that’s actually verified, we cannot allow these communities to ban sunscreens. We have plenty of empirical evidence that sunscreens are very, very important to our society, that they save lives. By banning them, we’ll be threatening lives,” said Republican Rep. Ralph Massullo, who is a dermatologist.

Key West, where fishermen, snorkelers and scuba divers are drawn to the reefs, is the only Florida city to pass an ordinance to ban sunscreens containing the chemicals in question. The ordinance is set to go into place next year unless DeSantis signs the bill. Miami Beach and Surfside in Miami-Dade County considered bans, but ultimately took no action.

Bill opponents argued that local governments should have the right to protect resources that are important to them. They also said the research is valid and that consumers have other products available to protect themselves.

“The science on this matter is not junk science,” said Democratic Rep. Javier Fernandez, who said that 6,000 tons of sunscreen chemicals wash up on coral reefs across the planet each year. “How can anyone characterize the action of the city of Key West as anything other than reasonable and prudent? … What the leadership of the city of Key West did makes absolute sense.”

Key West isn’t the only place to pass a sunscreen ban. Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Caribbean island of Bonaire and the archipelago nation of Palau in the western Pacific have all enacted sunscreen bans that are either in place or will be over the next two years.

Drug store chain CVS announced in August that it will remove the chemicals from 60 of its store brand sunscreen products, and it and other companies are now marketing mineral-based “reef safe” sunscreen.

“The market has already responded by introducing a host of new, affordable, and most importantly, effective options,” Fernandez said.

Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani noted that even the state Department of Environmental Protection is promoting reef-safe sunscreen. The department has a 30-second YouTube video offering advice on how to protect reefs, including not using plastic straws and other single-use plastics, not standing on or touching reefs and using reef-safe products.

Last year DeSantis vetoed a bill that would prevent local governments from banning plastic straws. Key West City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley now hopes DeSantis will do the same with this bill and expressed frustration that the Legislature is meddling in local affairs.

“We all are fighting issues that the state Legislatures feels that local communities should not have any control over,” Weekley said. “Whether it’s vacation rentals or the use of plastic bags and Styrofoam, they’ve basically taken away a lot of our home rule rights.”

Massullo said he recommends zinc-based sunscreen for his patients. But he said consumers tend to use it on their faces and not on their entire bodies.

“Those sunscreens are very, very difficult to use,” Massullo said. “Zinc is very, very thick and also stains, and most people don’t like to use it.”