Why a tiny Pacific island has decided to ban sunscreen lotions

SYDNEY: The Western Pacific nation of Palau has become the first country to ban many kinds of sunscreen, in a move to protect its coral reefs from chemicals that scientists say cause significant damage.

Under the ban, which will take effect in 2020, “reef-toxic” sunscreen — defined as containing one of 10 prohibited chemicals, a list that could grow later — can be confiscated from tourists when they enter the country, and retailers who sell it can be fined up to $1,000.

Damage to coral reefs worldwide from climate change has been widely reported, but scientists say there is growing evidence that chemicals from sunscreen, which washes off swimmers or enters the ocean through sewer systems, also causes grave harm.

Palau passed the ban into law last week. President Tommy Remengesau called it “especially timely”, saying that a major impetus was a 2017 report that found sunscreen products to be “widespread” in Jellyfish Lake, one of the country’s Unesco World Heritage sites. It has been estimated that 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen are deposited in the world’s oceans each year.

Researchers found that even a low concentration of sunscreen in the water can hinder the development of young coral, said Dr Selina Ward, a lecturer in coral reef ecology and physiology at the University of Queensland in Australia. Studies have also shown that chemicals in sunscreen can disrupt the reproduction of fish by interfering with their hormones.

Chemicals in sunscreen can be “worse than climate change”, Craig Downs, executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia, said this year.

So, if not sunscreen, what must one “wear” on a beach? “I think wearing fabrics on your body is the best alternative to sunscreen,” Ward said.

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