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Coral: Palau to ban sunscreen products to protect reefs

Date: 1st November 2018

Source: BBC
Author: Matt McGrath

Palau is set to become the first country to impose a widespread ban on sunscreen in an effort to protect its vulnerable coral reefs.

The government has signed a law that restricts the sale and use of sunscreen and skincare products that contain a list of ten different chemicals.

Researchers believe that these ingredients are highly toxic to marine life, and can make coral more susceptible to bleaching.

The ban comes into force in 2020.

In a statement, Palau’s President Tommy Remengesau said the ban, which would see fines of $1,000 (£760) for retailers who violated the law, was timely.

“The power to confiscate sunscreens should be enough to deter their non-commercial use, and these provisions walk a smart balance between educating tourists and scaring them away.”

How do sunscreen products harm corals?

Scientists have been raising concerns about the impacts of sunscreen products on marine life for many years.

They are particularly worried over the role of two ingredients called oxybenzone and octinoxate. These are used as sun protection factors as they absorb ultraviolet light.

However, they are believed to make coral more susceptible to bleaching. Research published in 2015 showed that the oxybenzone could stunt the growth of baby corals and was toxic to several different coral species in laboratory tests.

“Oxybenxzone is probably the baddest actor out of the 10 chemicals that have been banned,” said Dr Craig Downs, an expert on the impacts of sunscreens on marine life.

“It causes corals to bleach at lower temperatures, and it reduces their resilience to climate change.”

Dr Downs says that when there’s a disastrous event like mass coral bleaching, reefs should recover over the following years. That has not been happening in many parts of the world.

“Life doesn’t scramble back in where there are tourists,” said Dr Downs. “The juvenile phase of coral are more susceptible to chemical pollution than adults. That’s why we see these areas not coming back.”

“They are coral reef zombies. Only the adults are left and it’s only a matter of time before they go.”

How much of a threat does sunscreen pose?

Researchers say that the biggest threat to coral reefs is climate change, with estimates that 90% of reefs will succumb to rising temperatures by 2050. The second biggest threat is the suffocating threat posed by algal blooms, triggered by the runoff of nutrients from sewage and farming. Sunscreen is now seen as one of a number of other, lesser threats including ocean acidification.

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