Coral reefs are among the oceans' most stunning natural phenomena, home to multitudes of underwater species with their fates inextricably linked to the reef's survival.
News reports reveal that Key West, Florida, has taken a bold step to preserving both the reefs and their delicate ecosystems.
The Key West City Commission voted 6-1 to ban the sale, within city limits, of sunscreens containing certain chemicals linked to coral reef bleaching.
Coral reef bleaching occurs when coral polyps expel algae that live inside their tissues, causing the coral to turn completely white. Algae provides up to 90 percent of a coral reef's energy; while a coral reef can survive a bleaching event, it is ultimately more fragile and more likely to die out as a result.
The Key West City Commission acted in response to studies linking the chemicals within certain sunscreens to cellular damage in coral reefs. The Keys are home to the only living coral reef in North America.
"To me, it boils right down to the fact that there are thousands of sunscreens out there and we have one reef," Mayor Teri Johnston said at a city commission meeting on Tuesday night. "And we have an opportunity to do one small thing to protect that. I believe it's our obligation."
Johnston expressed hope that the commission's vote to ban the chemicals would create a paradigm shift within consumers, leading them to make more educated decisions about the environmental impact of certain products.
"After a bold statement from this commission that we ban these two ingredients, there's not going to be one person who goes into that CVS that doesn't flip it over and take a look at the ingredients, and then make a personal decision on how they want to handle their sunscreen protection," she said.
City Commissioner Greg Davila was the lone holdout.
"We're not giving residents the freedom to choose what sunscreens they want to use," he said.
"Up to 70 percent of sunscreens on the U.S. market contain oxybenzone, and up to 8 percent contain octinoxate," notes an NPR report. "That includes offerings by Neutrogena, Coppertone and Aveeno." Oxybenzone and Octinoxate are both FDA-approved.
The Miami Herald observed considerable opposition from industry leaders at Tuesday's hearing, noting that "some dermatologists and industry lobbyists showed up to say banning the sale of such sunscreens would increase rates of skin cancer and likely discourage people from using any at all."
Among those who've opposed the ban is the company Johnson & Johnson. The company sells multiple sunscreens with oxybenzone. In an online post, Johnson & Johnson argued that concerns about the effects of these chemicals on coral reefs "have led to widespread misinformation about the safety of many sunscreens in the marine environment."
"According to environmental experts around the world, global climate change, ocean acidification, and unsustainable fishing practices are the cause of coral reef bleaching," Johnson & Johnson stressed, branding the research into the links between sunscreen and coral reef bleaching as not credible.
Carlos Gutierrez, vice president of state and local government affairs for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), also said that the evidence that oxybenzone and octinoxate are linked to coral reef bleaching is inconclusive.
"For CHPA, this issue is about public health," a CHPA statement read. "The stakes are far too high to rush into this product ban, especially when there are no proven benefits to coral reef[s] if you go forward with the ban."
Lezlee Westine, the president and CEO of the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), had similar reservations. A letter from PCPC noted the following:
"Ordinance File #18-3253, although well intended, lacks the necessary scientific evidence to demonstrate that these sunscreen ingredients are responsible for coral bleaching. We fear this legislation will create confusion, put consumers' health at risk and potentially discourage the use of sunscreens -- an important part of a safe sun regimen."
Nevertheless, the move has proven quite popular.
In voting to ban certain types of sunscreen, Key West joins the Pacific nation of Palau and the state of Hawaii. Both places passed similar bans last year. Key West's ban is set to go into effect January 1, 2021, the same day Hawaii's begins.