The Key West Commission has taken steps to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two ingredients that could be harmful to coral reefs. Studies have shown that these chemicals cause coral bleaching and damage and may even contribute to coral death.
The measure was approved 7-0 and will now be reviewed by Commissioners before potentially being passed into law in February. If the measure passes, people will still be able to get a prescription for these sunscreens if needed.
“It’s not the major cause of the loss of our reef,” City Commissioner Jimmy Weekley, who co-sponsored the measure, tells the Washington Post. “But this is one reason we can do something about. We can take a step to eliminate those chemicals going into our water.”
One 2015 study from the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology estimates that about 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in coral reefs each year. Oxybenzone, write the study authors, “not only kills the coral, it causes DNA damage in adults and deforms the DNA in coral in the larval stage, making it unlikely they can develop properly.”
A tiny amount of these chemicals is enough to cause significant damage: the equivalent of a drop in six Olympic-sized swimming pools, according to the Washington Post. While ocean bathers certainly introduce these chemicals into the environment, the Post notes that sunscreen can also enter waterways via shower drains or wastewater streams.
Hawaii instated a ban on the sale of these sunscreen ingredients last year, which will go into effect in 2021.
The world has already lost nearly one-third of its coral reefs, according to the World Wildlife Fund; over half are currently threatened by human activity, and it is estimated that 60 percent will be destroyed over the next 30 years if significant action is not taken to protect them.
Coral reefs are home to more than 25 percent of all known marine fish species.