The island nation of Palau is set to ban some common types of sunscreen in an effort to preserve its distinctive coral reefs, according to ABC News. Last week, President Tommy Remengesau Jr. signed the law, which will go into effect in 2020.
Harmful sunscreen will be confiscated from visitors, while shops caught selling the “reef-toxic” sunscreen could incur fines of as much as $1000.
The island’s coral reefs are a major draw for divers worldwide. Often called the underwater Serengeti, they are treasured for their diversity of microhabitats and fish species, and are both accessible and relatively healthy compared to the declining reefs in much of the world.
Chemicals in many commonly used sunscreens have been shown by researchers to be damaging to coral reefs. The chemicals enter the water from swimmers, and even limited amounts may be harmful to coral. Olkeriil Kazuo, a spokesman for the Palau government, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that several gallons of sunscreen leech into the oceans every day:
“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. 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.”
The law will apply to 10 specific chemicals, including oxybenzone, and will affect many common types of sunscreen. Reef-safe sunscreens will be permitted.
The president announced plans to support the measure this past summer, saying:
“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. 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.”
One popular diving spot, called Jellyfish Lake, was closed for a year after the jellyfish population began to decline.
Hawaii also announced plans this year to ban the sale of sunscreens with oxybenzone or octinoxate, starting in 2021. This measure would still allow tourists to bring other sunscreen, or even buy these sunscreens with a prescription.
Coral reefs are facing a global threat from climate change, and bleaching events have killed large portions of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Some scientists warn most reefs could disappear entirely by 2040.