The sunscreen wars have returned to the Sunshine State. This week, lawmakers on the Florida Senate Rules Committee voted 12-4 in favor of a bill that would block cities from regulating the use of particular sunscreens. The measure is a direct response to a Key West ordinance set to kick in next year that would require prescriptions for non-eco-friendly sunscreens containing chemicals believed to be harmful to coral reefs.
The bill's author, state Sen. Rob Bradley, cited Florida's problems with melanoma and other skin cancers as a reason for not regulating sunscreen, claiming Key West's law was based on "junk science."
"What we're not going to do is feel-good measures that don't actually make a difference in saving our coral reefs so we can pat ourselves on the back," Bradley said. "We're the Sunshine State, and we need to encourage, not discourage, people to use sunscreen... We also need to discourage local governments going on tangents not based on science."
Both proponents and opponents of regulation cited peer-reviewed studies of two chemical sunscreen ingredients — oxybenzone and octinoxate — compiled last year by the state's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. The studies concluded that corals can be damaged by the chemicals when exposed to "concentration levels generally not observed in nature."
Bradley and his cohort interpret that conclusion to mean that for damage to occur, large amounts of sunscreen chemicals would have to be applied directly to reefs for a long period of time. Proponents of sunscreen regulation, on the other hand, believe the studies show sufficient evidence of the environmental impact of those chemicals, which can bleach and eventually kill coral reefs as well as damage marine biodiversity.
In a place as dependent on tourism as Key West, using chemical sunscreens isn't worth the risk to the reefs, according to the Surfrider Foundation's Florida policy manager director, Holly Parker Curry.
"Coral reefs are immensely valuable not only to Florida's economy generally but particularly to the Keys and Key West," Curry said in her testimony before Monday's vote. Curry cited estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing that coral reefs in Florida have an asset value of $8.5 billion and support roughly 70,000 jobs.
Bradley, however, remained unconvinced and argued that the state was already taking the necessary steps to protect its coral reefs. The Fleming Island Republican's bill has been backed by sunscreen manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and trade groups representing dermatologists and retail stores. It will face a vote from the full Senate next.
Elsewhere in the Florida Senate, another sunscreen bill was proposed. This past Tuesday, state Sen. Linda Stewart introduced a statewide ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate modeled after the ordinance in Key West and a similar measure that passed in Hawaii. Stewart's bill instead promotes "reef-safe" mineral sunscreens that exclude those two chemicals.