Sunscreen battle pits FL Republicans against Key West, Hawaii, FDA, and members of Congress

By: - February 4, 2020 7:00 am

While Florida lawmakers want to protect all sunscreens from local bans, Hawaii bans certain sunscreens to protect local corals, and lawmakers there want to expand the ban to include sunscreens being scrutinized by the FDA for human safety. Photo: Colin Anderson Productions pty ltd

While Republican lawmakers in Florida rush to pass legislation shielding all sunscreens from local government restrictions, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, two Florida members of Congress, the city of Key West, and the state of Hawaii are working in the opposite direction.

Their reason: Suspicion that certain sunscreen ingredients may harm humans as well as coral reefs.

Florida lawmakers advanced bills last week to stop Key West and any other city from adopting “reef safe” regulations banning two specific sunscreen ingredients – oxybenzone and octinoxate – believed to harm corals. Preemption proponents argued the risk of skin cancer outweighs the threat to corals.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration announced on Jan. 21 that its recent studies show 12 popular sunscreen chemicals enter the bloodstream in concentrations that no longer qualify them for listing as “generally recognized as safe and effective” for human use. The 12chemicals include oxybenzone and octinoxoate. Still on the “safe” list are zinc oxide and titanium oxide, which are minerals.

Sen. Rob Bradley, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has said he knew about the FDA findings but forged ahead with his bill preempting any limits on sunscreens. It cleared the full Senate on Wednesday (25-14) and the House health committee (10-6) the next day. It is headed for a vote in the full House as early as this week.

FDA studies showed that chemical absorption rates exceeded the threshold under which the ingredients could be presumed safe. That determination triggered the need for toxicology studies, the first ones ever done on these ingredients, though they have been in use for decades.

“Without further testing, the FDA does not know what levels of absorption can be considered safe,” write researchers Theresa M. Michele and David Straussin in a statement on the FDA website. The findings do not indicate whether absorption of the chemicals is dangerous, which is what the FDA will study next.

Here is an excerpt from theFDA report:

“The available literature includes studies indicating that oxybenzone is absorbed through the skin to a greater extent than previously understood and can lead to significant systemic exposure, as well as data showing the presence of oxybenzone in human breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine, and blood plasma.

“The significant systemic availability of oxybenzone, coupled with a lack of data evaluating the full extent of its absorption potential, is a concern, among other reasons, because of questions raised in the published literature regarding the potential for endocrine activity in connection with systemic oxybenzone exposure. Nearly all of these sunscreen active ingredients also have limited or no data characterizing their absorption.”

Holly Parker Curry, Florida regional manager for the Surfriders Foundation, said she is “appalled” that lawmakers are rushing broad preemption legislation through rather than differentiating between chemical sunscreen ingredients that may harm both corals and humans and those that clearly pose no threat to either.

“At Surfriders, we have repeatedly asked, ‘Why can’t we just wait until we have the FDA findings?’” Curry said – adding that her family, which includes two children, uses mineral-based sunscreens, not chemical ones.

Bradley did not respond to requests for comment.

National concern

Meanwhile, two Florida members of Congress are pushing for reef-safe sunscreen restrictions, and lawmakers in Hawaii want to expand their own ban to include all the ingredients de-listed by the FDA.

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 HR 1834 in Congress to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate from use within national marine sanctuaries that contain coral.

The top target of their protective measure is the Great Florida Reef, where corals are dying from a variety of causes, including stony coral tissue disease, heat-induced bleaching, and water pollution.

“Defending our precious coral, the species that live in and around them, and the environmental and economic benefits they provide is a necessity, and I’m glad we’re able to work on this on a bipartisan basis,” Mucarsel-Powell says in a joint statement issued with Rooney.

“Reefs play a major role in preventing shore erosion and protect coastal wetlands,” Rooney adds. “Their preservation is a key component of our tourism-based economy. I introduced the ‘Defending Our National Marine Sanctuaries from Damaging Chemicals Act’ to protect these critical areas so that they can be enjoyed and studied for generations to come. It is common sense to prevent the application of these chemicals in National Marine Sanctuaries.”

Veteran corals expert Cheryl Woodley of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Center for Coastal Ocean Science in Charleston, S.C., wrote in a Jan. 21 letter to Key West city officials that the evidence of coral damage due to exposure to oxybenzone and octinoxate is overwhelming, refuting claims that it is “junk science.”

“Over 100 scientific papers in the last five to six years have shown that various chemicals in sunscreens are present in the marine environment as pseudo-persistent pollutants. They have been shown to bioaccumulate in marine biota and can have harmful effects on marine life including coral, algae, aquatic insects, mussels, crustaceans, and fish,” Woodley wrote, listing the scientific papers in a lengthy appendix.

“Oxybenzone threatens overall coral reef health by inducing coral bleaching; harming or killing coral larvae by inducing gross deformities; damaging DNA; and acting as an endocrine disrupter affecting reproduction and development. In fish, it acts as an estrogen-mimetic that feminizes fish. In copepods and sea urchins it slows reproduction and development.”

NOAA has committed $2.5 million to coral restoration in Florida.

In Hawaii

The state of Hawaii believes NOAA. It adopted its reef-safe sunscreen regulations in 2018, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by state Rep. Gene Ward just introduced legislation to expand the restrictions to ban all sunscreen ingredients no longer deemed “generally recognized as safe and effective” by the FDA.

Ward told the Florida Phoenix that Hawaii’s ban on reef-damaging ingredients had done no harm to the state’s tourism industry and that retailers embraced it, stocking their shelves with reef-safe sunscreens that contain no oxybenzone or octinoxate.

“If it’s bad for our environment, it’s bad for our business,” Ward said in a telephone interview. “Our environment is our economy.”

Ward, who serves on Hawaii’s House Committee on Health, said the Democratic-controlled Legislature is confident about the science involving coral-damaging sunscreens. And because the FDA withdrew most sunscreens from its “safe and effective” list over human health concerns, he and other lawmakers want to ban those, too, pending the outcome of the FDA toxicology studies.

“If we want to be really scientific, look at the data,” Ward said. “The data are not on their side.”

In Florida

Sen. Bradley made the same argument from the opposite side, citing undisputed evidence that sun exposure can cause skin cancer and that sunscreens reduce the risk.

He told the Senate Rules Committee that Key West leaders had been “fooled by junk science” and adopted “feel-good measures” that only give the appearance of protecting coral reefs.

Curry, with the Surfrider Foundation, and Rebecca O’Hara, of the Florida League of Cities, testified before the Rules Committee in opposition to Bradley’s bill. They questioned why senators would not allow the banning of only oyxbenzone and octinoxate when reef-safe alternatives remain widely available. In particular, old-school zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are considered safe for corals and remain FDA-designated as “safe and effective” for human use.

Bradley said he and other lawmakers are keenly concerned about Florida corals, but hold that skin cancer is a bigger threat that warrants keeping “all sunscreens” on Florida shelves without exception.

“We are the Sunshine State,” Bradley said. “Florida is second in the nation for new cases of melanoma [a skin cancer]. All sunscreens should be available.”

The Rules Committee approved Bradley’s bill, the Florida Senate followed, and two committees in the House have done the same.

In Key West

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston finds vindication for her city’s sunscreen regulations within the FDA report, NOAA science, and Hawaii’s actions. “There is a great deal of new information coming out. This is not the end of the story,” she told the Phoenix.

Bradley never discussed with her Key West’s rationale for banning the suspect sunscreens, Johnston said. “We should take the lead on this. I don’t know why a legislator from a land-locked district in north Florida would make this his issue,” Johnston said.

Even Florida’s new state-sponsored website, rolled out by Gov. Ron DeSantis during a press conference on Thursday, discourages the use of chemical sunscreens.

“Some chemicals commonly found in popular sunscreens have been shown to negatively impact marine life,” the website says. It advises readers to instead use sun-resistant clothing, hats, sunglasses, umbrellas, and mineral-based sunscreens.

“Florida is not Florida without its coral reefs,” DeSantis said, describing state and volunteer efforts to replant corals that are dying off. The volunteer efforts include Blue Force, a cadre of retired Navy Seals retrained to plant coral.

The Phoenix requested comment from DeSantis about whether he would support or veto Bradley’s bill but aides had not responded as of this writing.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.