The government of the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) has joined the ranks of Hawaii, Key West, Florida and the Pacific island nation of Palau in banning sunscreen products with chemicals that are deemed harmful to coral reefs and other marine life.
On June 25, the USVI Legislature unanimously passed Bill 33-0043 that bans the sale, distribution and import of sunscreen products with the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate.
USVI Gov. Albert Bryan is expected to sign the bill, which will be implemented in three stages starting Dec. 31, when importing these sunscreens will be prohibited. On March 30, 2020, the sale or distribution of these sunscreen products will be banned while, after Jan. 1, 2021, transporting them into the USVI or possessing them will be banned. First time violators face a fine of $1,000.
University of Central Florida (UCF) Associate Professor of Biology John E. Fauth was part of the international team whose 2015 study on why coral reefs were declining on St. Johns, one of the islands in the USVI, spurred the bans. According to the university, “Their experiments demonstrated that oxybenzone caused corals to bleach, which is a major cause of coral mortality worldwide. Oxybenzone also damaged coral DNA and deformed coral larvae.”
“It’s good to see our research making an impact to safeguard our natural resources under water,” Fauth said. “Not only will coral reefs have an opportunity to recover, but this also makes sense because so many places rely on natural resources as part of their economy. More than 2 million [people] visit the U.S. Virgin Islands each year and frequent the famous reefs. This is a good step toward protecting the natural treasure and the islands’ economic livelihood,” he added.
“The Virgin Islands is a popular tourism destination because of its beautiful countryside and warm and friendly people,” said fellow scientist Craig Downs, who also worked on the study. “Unfortunately, it also susceptible to the impacts of overtourism and unmanaged tourism, which has been shown around the world to be a devastating threat to coral reefs, as well as to the tourism industry that depends on them. Sunscreen pollution, and especially the chemicals of oxybenzone, octocrylene and octinoxate, can poison coral reefs so that a next generation of corals and fish can never be established, ultimately giving rise to ruined seascape,” he pointed out.
Environmentalists in the USVI lauded the ban. “Oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene devastate coral and marine life and are also known carcinogenic and hormone disruptors in humans,” said Harith Wickrema, president of Island Green Living Association, in a statement. “In addition to environmental and human harm, tourism-based economies will experience financial devastation if coral and marine life die off. The ripple effect would be huge and we need to take action now.”
The Virgin Islands National Park, which is a part of the U.S. National Park Service, also supported the measure and pointed out that only mineral sunscreen products with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can be used by visitors and residents alike. They also recommend that when people are out in the sun, they seek shade and wear protective clothing such as hats, long-sleeve rash guards and dive skins when in the water.
The movement to ban certain sunscreen products seems to be gaining traction nationwide, as a bill has also been filed in Congress to that effect. U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL) filed H.R. 1834 in March that would prohibit the use of sunscreen containing oxybenzone or octinoxate in a National Marine Sanctuary in which coral is present. The bill, which was referred to the House Committee on Natural Resources, does not provide details on how such a ban would be implemented.