Editorial: Banning sunscreens harmful to coral reefs not worthy of big-footing by Florida lawmakers
When it comes to big-footing local governments’ authority, it seems nothing is off-limits for Florida legislators.
Taxing authority. Plastic straws. Vacation rentals. It doesn’t matter how local, or how well-meaning. If the issue somehow insults a lawmaker’s -- or influential lobbyist’s -- sensibilities, it’s considered fair game to quash the smaller government’s ability to act.
Only there is nothing fair about a St. Augustine senator’s bill (SB 588) threatening local governments with a $25,000 fine if they prohibit the sale of certain sunscreens.
Republican state Sen. Travis Hutson’s bill, which was approved by the Senate Community Affairs Committee last Tuesday, is clearly meant to preempt a Key West ordinance banning the local sale of sunscreens that contain two ingredients -- oxybenzone and octinoxate. A growing body of scientific evidence says the chemicals are bad for coral reefs, leaving them bleached and often dying. The ordinance, which passed by a 6-1 city commission vote earlier this year, is set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021.
Key West city commissioners were looking to get out ahead of this potential disaster. Their reasoning is simple: the tourist destination’s environment is its livelihood. When corals suffer from bleaching, they turn white and can quickly erode reefs, which act as natural barriers to shorelines from storms, are habitats for marine life and provide an income for dive and tourism companies.
No more coral reefs; no more business. Period.
Key West is the only Florida city with a local ordinance banning sunscreens -- taking a cue from Hawaii, which became the first state to pass a similar ban. But Miami Beach is mulling a similar prohibition. And the Legislature’s presumption should provide a cautionary tale for other coastal communities like Jupiter, Riviera Beach and Delray Beach, whose livelihoods depend on the environment.
“This may be our last shot. It’s not the major cause of the loss of our reef,” City Commissioner Jimmy Weekly said in a January meeting. “But this is one reason we can do something about. We can take a step to eliminate those chemicals going into our water.” (Key West’s ordinance doesn’t prohibit tourists from buying the banned sunscreens outside the city, or online. And sunscreen brands without the chemicals can still be sold.)
Hutson justifies his threat to local governments by saying that, while he is concerned about the environment, he’s “just not a fan of government on the state or local level telling a business what to do.”
He’s being short-sighted. Key West passed the ordinance to protect its business, by protecting its environment. Even Gov. Ron DeSantis connects the health of Florida’s economy to that of the environment.
Hutson claims he wants to make sure bans are based on “science and data.” But he’s just parroting three powerful companies with a stake in the sale of sunscreens and are registered to lobby on the bill: Johnson & Johnson, which makes multiple sunscreens with oxybenzone; and Publix and Walmart, stores that sell the product.
Indeed, Johnson & Johnson argues that certain sunscreen chemicals affecting coral reefs “have led to widespread misinformation about the safety of many sunscreens in the marine environments” and declares there is “no credible science” to show a link between sunscreens and coral reef bleaching.
No credible science? Key West leaders cited published studies by environmental researchers -- including a professor from the University of Central Florida -- showing how the two chemicals, which accumulate in water from bathers or from wastewater discharges, can damage coral reefs through bleaching and harming the corals’ DNA.
The website for the South Florida Reef Ambassador Initiative, which falls under -- surprise! -- 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.”
And a February 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.”
Finally, Hutson says he is a “big proponent of making sure people have sunscreen” and believes local bans on certain types of sunscreens are “silly” because the substances protect people from ultraviolet rays. But even the American Academy of Dermatology, which is rightfully concerned that a ban of these ingredients could have an impact on skin cancer rates, acknowledges that there is “emerging evidence that chemical sunscreen ingredients” could affect coral reefs.
The organization recommends further study. We agree. And Hutson, in fact, has called on Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Sarasota, to request studies on sunscreen impacts on coral reefs and the environmental impact of plastic straws.
But in the meantime, why stop environmentally conscious municipalities from taking steps to protect their coasts?
Communities that try to make good laws for their localities shouldn’t be at the mercy of a Legislature that stomps all over them on behalf of big-spending lobbyists.
See original editorial . . .