Lawmakers in U.S. Virgin Islands ban sunscreens that harm coral reefs

“Oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene devastate coral and marine life and are also known carcinogenic and hormone disruptors in humans.”

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The U.S. Virgin islands government has taken a bold step in protecting their ocean environment with the ban of certain sunscreen ingredients that are harmful to coral and marine life.

In a unanimous vote last month, the U.S. Virgin Islands Legislature passed bill number 33-0043, which bans the sale, distribution, and import of sunscreen products containing the chemicals oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate.

These three chemicals are among 12 for which the FDA has requested additional industry data in order to determine their safety and effectiveness. In banning them, the U.S. Virgin Islands becomes the first jurisdiction compliant with the FDA’s monograph that only two sunscreen ingredients – zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – have been recognized as safe and effective.

According to the bill these chemicals have “significant harmful impacts on the Virgin Islands’ marine environment and ecosystem.” Coral bleaching as well as detrimental effects on marine life would not only affect the environment but would impact the local economy.

“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 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 U.S. Virgin Islands is a popular tourist spot, resulting in thousands of people entering the waters, usually covered in sunscreen, every day. “The battle is between overtourism and ecological conservation – too many people are coming to enjoy the reef and their numbers are destroying it,” says Dr. Craig Downs, a scientist studying the effects of sunscreen pollution. “The Virgin Islands government did one of the few things they could do to manage this impact, and that is encourage the use of environmentally safer sunscreens. Clean water is critical for allowing the next generation of coral reefs to become established in popular swimming areas.”

A 2015 study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, the “Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” has resulted in several bans nationally. The Virgin Islands ban follows similar ones in Hawaii, Palau, and Key West, Florida.

The ban in the Virgin Islands will go into effect in stages:

  • after 31 December 2019, importing products with the banned chemicals for sale would be illegal
  • after 30 September 2020, selling, offering for sale and distributing products with these chemicals would be illegal
  • after 1 January 2021, using, possessing or bringing products with these chemicals into the territory would be illegal.

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