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Toxic Sunscreens and Plastic Straws Don’t Belong on Our Beaches

by Dan Reiter

In February, Key West became the first city in Florida to ban the sale of sunscreens with the compound oxybenzone, which blocks UV rays by inducing a chemical reaction on the surface of your skin, and which, even in minuscule concentrations, acts as a potent genotoxicant and endocrine disruptor on coral reef ecosystems. Given that 14,000 tons of sunscreen leach into the world’s marine waters each year, Key West’s ordinance seemed a common-sense measure to increase the health and resiliency of the Florida Reef Tract, a cherished natural resource.

Cue the wheels of Tallahassee. In Range Rovers and BMW sedans, lobbyists rolled into the capital to have some words with the scientists. Warning of an upcoming “skin cancer epidemic,” brandishing doublespeak like “reef-safe fallacy,” and questioning scientific methods, they embarked upon a literal smear campaign––wiping “alternative” sunscreens on the hands of Congressmen in an attempt to show their inferiority to brands like Coppertone Sport and Neutrogena’s ‘Wet Skin’ Kids. “It’s only 6% oxybenzone, after all,” the New Jersey industrialists reasoned. “And would you think about our restocking fees!”

A Marine Debris team member disentangling a Laysan Albatross chick Credit: Ryan Tabata 2015

After a few days, State Representative Travis Hutson, of St. Augustine, finally broke––and sponsored a bill in which Florida would effectively ban sunscreen bans. Under Hutson’s bill, any ocean-minded community attempting to imitate Key West would be punished with a $25,000 fine. With a little twist-of-the-knife, Hutson also attempted to ban plastic straw bans, but was later forced back from that position.

If you live on the barrier island, this kind of government overreach should outrage you. A local municipality is doing its best to clean up its patch of the sea, and the State is trying to block its way. Haven’t we pulled enough fluttering plastic bags out of the seagrapes, or stepped on enough bits of blue plastic in the shell line, or picked up enough trash left by these glistening tourists to earn the right to condemn what we think is detrimental to our water quality?

Tony Sasso, executive director of Keep Brevard Beautiful, and a one-time state representative himself, has some advice for Tallahassee: “Let communities decide how environmentally engaged they want to be.”

Cocoa Beach should call upon local businesses to do their part in keeping the beach clean. We should enact a ban on plastic straws and plastic bags. And yes, we should stand with Key West in banning oxomorphic sunscreens. Spring Breakers will still be able to purchase mineral-based sunscreens, or bring their own sprays. Better yet, they can try out some hats and rash guards.

Respect the water.


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