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Key West Ban Could Be Overturned By Bill Barring Cities From Regulating Sunscreen Sales

Houses along beach in Seadside
Erich Martin

Florida lawmakers are trying to overrule Key West’s ban on certain sunscreen sales. They want the state – and not cities to regulate sales. The proposed law is moving up through the legislature.

Imagine a typical beach day. Parents are slathering sunscreen onto their children’s faces. Teenagers are splashing one another and seagulls are crying out in search of french fries. Among all the chaos is something no one sees--Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. 

“So one of the things to understand about the chemicals that we’re talking about is that they are most impactful in high concentrations," says Sierra Club of Florida's Deborah Foote. She’s speaking to a House Committee about chemicals in sunscreen that can wash off in the ocean.

“They are coming in one instance from swimmers who are around the coral reefs. So it’s important to think about a multitude of folks who are wearing this sunscreen within the waters surrounding the reefs," Foote says.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration--or NOAA cites studies that say these products can bleach coral, deform sea urchins and cause male fish to grow female parts. Key West banned the sale of sunscreens containing Oxybenzone and Octinoxate.

Rep. Spencer Roach (R-Fort Myers) worries Key West’s ban will discourage Floridians from wearing sunscreen.

“We know that it does prevent death in human beings. What is real, the science that is real is melanoma. Skin cancer and I also have some facts on that," Roach says.

He filed a bill that would overrule Key West’s ban and prevent other communities from passing similar rules.

“There is no conclusive scientific data that proves chemicals included in sunscreen are damaging coral reefs," Roach says.

Craig Downs from Haereticus Environmental Laboratory disagrees.

"That's complete bull hockey," Downs says.

He collaborates with NOAA on coral research and says coral bleaching in Key West is caused from a variety of factors, one of which is sunscreen.

"And it’s a low-hanging fruit," Downs says. "If you can correct for that factor, then why not go for it?"

He says the chemicals are harmful to humans too. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration--or FDA says more research needs to be done on the chemical. Florida Society of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery’s Andrew Weinstein agrees. He says he went to Key West to stop the ban.

“I said this is a little bit like a situation where you have a murderer on the loose and everyone wants to do something. They want to get revenge and so they arrest the wrong person and then you have a double tragedy. You have somebody incarcerated who has done nothing and then you have the real culprit on the loose. And that’s what’s happened here. So the real culprit in coral bleaching is on the loose.” 

The bill passed through the Health Quality Subcommittee. It has more steps before going to the full House and Senate.