Sierra Club seeks veto of sunscreen bill that could damage coral reefs

Sunscreens resist skin cancer but ones with certain ingredients are believed to harm Florida corals and may not be safe for human health. Photo: Catherine Ledner

Sierra Club of Florida wants Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto legislation that would block Key West and all Florida cities from banning certain sunscreens believed to damage coral reefs.

The legislation prohibits any city from banning any kind of sunscreen. The bill sponsor, State Sen. Rob Bradley, said sunscreens’ efficacy at preventing skin cancer outweighs concerns about how they affect coral. Bradley is chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Deborah Foote, speaking for Sierra Club of Florida, said in an email to supporters the bill ignores the fact that reef-safe alternatives – sunscreens that do not contain oxybenzone and octinoxate – are readily available to fight skin cancer.

“This is despite the fact that there is a widely accepted body of science which shows these two chemicals damage the health and reproduction of coral reefs, making them more vulnerable to bleaching, disease, and death,” Foote said in the email message.

Sierra Club is hopeful that DeSantis will veto the bill, citing his veto in 2019 of local legislation to preempt local regulation of single-use plastic products.

“Last session, Governor DeSantis stood up for home rule and defended the authority of local governments when no compelling state interest exists,” Foote said in the Sierra statement. “Once again, the state legislature has overreached to pass a statewide preemption in response to a single local ordinance that is well grounded in science and local support.”

The governor’s office did not readily respond to a request for comment.

Bradley’s legislation, SB 172, passed the Senate and then the House over objections that it deprives local governments of home rule in deciding whether to ban certain sunscreens to protect reefs.

The legislation puts Florida at odds with the city of Key West, the state of Hawaii, two Florida members of Congress, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Key West Mayor Lori Johnston said in March that her city would continue to fight for its sunscreen ban, set to begin at the first of the year. The ban prohibits the use of chemical sunscreens in which the active ingredient is oxybenzone or octinoxate, the most popular kind of sunscreen. Mineral-based sunscreens in which the active ingredients are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are considered safe for marine life and corals.

The state of Hawaii similarly bans oxybenzone and octinoxate to protect its coral reefs. U.S. Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democrat who represents Miami-Dade and the Florida Keys, and Rep. Francis Rooney, a Republican representing Lee and Collier counties, are sponsoring a resolution in Congress to ban the ingredients from national marine sanctuaries where corals are found.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is investigating whether those chemicals are safe for human use, after long listing them among chemicals presumed to be safe and effective without ever having actually proved that.

The FDA removed them from the “safe and effective” list in January, before the Florida Senate or House adopted the preemption bill. The FDA retained zinc oxide and titanium dioxide on the list, finding them to safe and effective.