Palau will become the first country to ban the sale and use of sunscreen and other beauty products that contain 10 different chemicals that make corals susceptible to bleaching. The law will be effective from 2020. President Remengesau said that a fine of $1,000 would be levied if anyone breaks the law.
Scientists have been warning about the adverse effects that marine life suffers because of sunscreen products for a long time now. Octinoxate and oxybenzone absorb UV light and offer protection from the sun’s rays. But these are two of the most detrimental products to coral reefs. A 2015 study showed that ozybenzone resulted in stunted growth of baby corals in addition to being toxic to many other species of corals as seen in lab tests. Dr. Downs said that this chemical causes coral bleaching at lower temperatures and reduces pliability to climate change. Such chemicals could cause disastrous events like mass coral bleaching, which corals should usually recover from in the next years but it hasn’t been happening in several corners of the world. Baby corals don’t grow anymore leaving only the adults behind which will perish after a certain point of time, says Dr. Downs.
Events which result in destruction of coral reefs include climate change and algal blooms. The former could lead to death of 90% of corals by 2050 due to rising temperatures, and the latter could cause suffocation of corals which happens because of runoff of nutrients from farming or sewage. Ocean acidification and sunscreen are the smaller threats. Estimates say that 6-14,000 Tons of sunscreen enters reefs each year. Thousands of skincare products contain the two chemicals and US Congress to trying to come up with legislation to ban oxybenzone. It also affects human health negatively.
Palau is situated in the western side of the Pacific Ocean. It has one big volcanic island and smaller islands with coral reefs. The island, though small, has always been active about environment protection. It designated almost the entirety of its oceanic territory as a marine protective zone. After Fiji, it became the 2nd country to approve the Paris climate agreement in 2016. It has avoided damages to corals from overfishing, pollution and agriculture. Prof Wiedenmann said that banning sunscreen is a sensible decision, but many other steps have to be taken for protection of coral reefs. Other places to ban sunscreen are Bonaire Island, Hawaii and Mexico. The Palau ban is the most comprehensive one as it includes 4 chemicals with antimicrobial and endocrine-disruptive effects.
Alternatives include wearing protective clothing and mineral-based sunscreen products. Manufacturers are under no obligation to prove that their products do not harm corals and large companies like L’Oreal and Johnson & Johnson do not consider the evidence against coral destruction by sunscreen to be strong enough. But there are manufacturers who welcomed to move and even formed the ‘Safe Sunscreen Council’.