Palau, a tiny island nation in the Pacific, will ban many of the most common types of sunscreen in an effort to protect the country’s sensitive environment, a dramatic move to help aid some of the planet’s beleaguered coral reefs.
President Tommy Remengesau signed new legislation last week that will ban “reef toxic” sunscreens beginning in 2020. Any tourist found traveling to Palau will have the products confiscated, and shops will be banned from selling them or face fines up to $1,000 per violation, according to the Associated Press.
Reef-safe sunscreen will still be available.
Some scientists have linked the chemicals in sunscreen to poor health in corals, noting that even limited exposure can be toxic. The product can leech off tourists into the water, and a spokesman for Palau’s government said gallons of sunscreen finds its way into the oceans every day at popular snorkeling locations.
“If our most famous tour sites have four boats each hour, [and tourists] need at least one ounce of sunscreen to cover up, that can equate to a gallon every three hours,” Olkeriil Kazuo told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “Any given day, that would equate to three or five gallons of sunscreen into the ocean and Palau’s famous dive spots, snorkeling, biodiversity and coral.”
Remengesau announced his support for the legislation earlier this year, saying that on the back of tourism, “millions of people have come to know Palau as we do ― to recognize our hope for its unique and ancient culture, for the abundance of its natural resources and for its pristine natural environment.”
“As more and more people come from all around the world to see our pristine paradise with their own eyes, we cannot relinquish our responsibility for these islands,” he wrote in August. “We must meet our duty, at every opportunity, to educate international visitors about how Palau has lasted in this uniquely untouched natural state for so long.”
The country moved forward on the proposal after another famed tourist landmark began to show severe signs of degeneration. Palau’s famed Jellyfish Lake ― named for the swarms of creatures floating in its waters ― was closed for more than a year after the jellyfish began disappearing.
Hawaii said earlier this year said it would ban retailers from selling sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone or octinoxate beginning in 2021, although tourists would still be allowed to bring their own products or purchase offending sunscreens with a prescription. Lawmakers cited similar studies that found sunscreen harmful to coral, and noted that more than 3,500 of the world’s most popular sunscreens contain harmful ingredients.
Coral reefs around the globe have been decimated in recent years, primarily due to climate change. Warming ocean temperatures have spurred several mass bleaching events that have left swaths of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef dead or dying, and researchers have been sounding alarm bells about the future of such structures, saying they could mostly disappear as soon as 2040.