U.S. Virgin Islands bans coral-damaging sunscreens

17 Sept 2019, 00:00
U.S. Virgin Islands bans coral-damaging sunscreens

On June 25, lawmakers in the U.S. Virgin Islands voted to ban common chemical sunscreen ingredients that can damage coral reefs.

With the ban, the U.S. Virgin Islands joins a handful of other jurisdictions around the world pioneering action on harmful sunscreens.

It will be the first such ban to take effect in the United States, followed by Hawaii and Key West, Florida, and among the first internationally.

Beachgoers in the U.S. Virgin Islands will be slathering on more ecologically friendly sunscreens next year after lawmakers voted to ban common chemical sunscreen ingredients that can damage coral reefs. With the ban, the U.S. Virgin Islands joins a handful of other jurisdictions around the world pioneering action on harmful sunscreens. It targets one more ingredient than most similar laws, however, and will be the first to take effect in the United States and among the first internationally.

The new law, passed unanimously in the U.S. Virgin Islands’ legislature on June 25, targets oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate, three UV-blocking chemicals found in most mainstream commercial sunscreen products in the United States. Studies have shown they harm coral and other marine ecosystems. Imports of sunscreens containing the chemicals will be outlawed as of Sept. 30, 2019; the ban on their distribution, sale, possession and use will take effect March 30, 2020.

Craig Downs, executive director of the Virginia-based nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, said outlawing harmful sunscreen ingredients is “low hanging fruit” when it comes to addressing threats to fragile reef ecosystems. “Degraded water quality,” to which sunscreen pollution contributes, represents “the greatest nemesis to coral reefs,” he said.

In a 2016 paper, Downs and fellow researchers found that one of the three targeted chemicals, oxybenzone, “poses a hazard to coral reef conservation and threatens the resiliency of coral reefs to climate change” by deforming young coral and damaging coral DNA. The study is part of a growing body of research driving momentum toward legislative action on sunscreen contamination.

Researchers estimate that globally reef area waters drink up between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen every year. But while sunscreen is one tangible pollutant, climate change and ocean acidification pose even bigger threats to reefs.

“Banning the sale of these sunscreens is not going to restore coral reef health. It is one step in a larger toolbox,” Tali Vardi, a coral biologist and coordinator for the Coral Restoration Consortium, said in an email.

“The most essential step is strong government action on climate change since corals live at the brink of a very narrow thermal range,” she said. “However, this is something that individuals can do.”

Beyond being the sites of tropical snorkel getaways, healthy coral reefs provide coastal areas with an essential buffer against storms and coastal erosion. They also make significant economic contributions. In the United States, reefs contribute at least $3.4 billion annually in tourism, fisheries, and coastal protection, including $1.7 billion in Hawaii, $1 billion in Puerto Rico, and $187 million in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Worldwide, at least 500 million people rely on coral reefs for food, coastal protection, and income.

In the Caribbean, coral has suffered at least a 50 percent decline over the last half-century and could all but vanish in the next two decades without urgent conservation efforts, according to the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network. A key factor is a severe international bout of coral bleaching, in which reefs lose their color and defenses. Between 2014 and 2017, global coral reefs spanning hundreds of kilometers suffered what a report in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society dubbed the “longest, most widespread, and almost certainly most destructive” coral bleaching event ever recorded. Various stressors can spark bleaching, but when it happens en masse like this, rising temperatures are to blame, and the phenomenon has increased in frequency and intensity with climate change.

Downs said that one of the key ways toxic sunscreen ingredients threaten coral reefs is by lowering the temperature at which coral will bleach. The chemicals also damage DNA and interfere with early development, threatening the coral’s long-term viability.

“Sunscreen pollution is persistent and renewed on a daily basis,” undermining coral’s ability to bounce back after sustaining damage from bleaching or a hurricane “by preventing the ‘next generation’ of corals and fish from recruiting to a specific coral reef,” Downs said in an email. “This then causes this desolate seascape, especially in high tourism areas.”

Aside from impacts on coral, researchers have found sunscreen chemicals can also lower fertility in fish, hinder algae growth, cause deformities in young mussels and sea urchins, and accumulate in dolphin tissue.

Scientists are poised to monitor contamination levels as sunscreen bans take effect and to ramp up restoration efforts if sunscreen pollution drops as anticipated, Downs added.

Virgin Islands senator Janelle K. Sarauw, one of the sponsors of the legislation, stressed the importance of protecting the Virgin Islands’ beaches as a “natural playground of both our children and tourists” as well as fishing as one of the “economical ways of life” on the islands.

“We want to encourage a healthier and safer alternative in the use of natural sunscreen, but we also have to be aggressive in saving our reefs now by banning harmful sunscreen,” Sarauw said in an email. “A cleaner Virgin Islands, both in the health of its people and spaces, only serves to benefit us all.”

An earlier draft of the new bill set implementation in 2021, but the final version sped up the timeline, making the Virgin Islands the first U.S. jurisdiction to implement a ban on sunscreen chemicals.

Hawaii and Key West, Florida, have approved bans, set to come into force in 2021, on the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. California has discussed a possible ban, while Florida withdrew a similar bill before it went to a vote, and Miami Beach lawmakers voted earlier this year against a proposed ban.

Outside the United States, the Pacific island nation of Palau has banned the same three chemicals as the Virgin Islands, as well as several other ingredients, including parabens used in moisturizers, shampoos, and other personal care items, effective Jan. 1, 2020. In the Caribbean, Aruba and Bonaire, a Dutch municipality, have their own versions set to come into effect in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Some destinations in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, such as the Xcaret and Xel-Há ecological reserves, reportedly require visitors to exchange problematic sunscreens for biodegradable samples.

In addition to the growing body of research linking sunscreen contamination to compromised reef health, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently raised questions about the safety of most sunscreen products. Out of 16 active sunscreen ingredients on the market, the FDA deemed only two UV-blockers — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — as “generally recognized as safe and effective.” It found that two ingredients are unsafe and that further research is required to determine whether oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate and nine other ingredients can be considered safe and effective.

The Washington, D.C.-based NGO Environmental Working Group, which has determined that many U.S. sunscreens fall short of “meaningful skin protection,” advocates that sunscreen should be a “last resort” after other sun protection measures, such as wearing clothes, sticking to the shade, checking the UV index, and planning outdoor activities around the sun.

In banning three common ingredients, the U.S. Virgin Islands law falls in step with the FDA stance, as it effectively only will allow mineral sunscreen products using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as active ingredients.

Despite the fact that most people live far away from coral reefs, Vardi said she believes popular interest in preserving them is strong. “I don’t think anyone wants to live in a world where an entire ecosystem — one that covers less than 1% of the ocean [and] is home to a third of all the fish in the sea and a quarter of all known marine life — goes extinct.”

Banner image: A small coral appears on a reef in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In the Virgin Islands and the rest of the Caribbean, threats to coral ecosystems include climate change, storms, pollution, tourism, and fishing. Image courtesy of NOAA’s National Ocean Service via Wikimedia Commons.

Heather Gies is a freelance journalist whose reporting on human rights and environmental issues has appeared in Al Jazeera, the Guardian, the Intercept, National Geographic, and other outlets. Follow her on Twitter @HeatherGies.

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