Sunscreen Ban Lacks Scientific Basis

By George Leposky

Recently I visited Xcaret, a private eco-archaeological park 45 miles south of Cancún, Mexico, that invites patrons to swim and snorkel in an underground river coursing through a 2,000-foot maze of limestone caves and lagoons teeming with tropical fish.

At the entrance to Xcaret, a sign orders all who enter the park to leave their sunscreens at the gate because chemicals and oils are harmful to the fish.

Frankly, that never occurred to me. I've often applied sunscreen to the back of my legs, arms, and neck to keep them from turning lobster-red as I snorkel. Have I been violating the integrity of this natural resource that I so greatly cherish and enjoy? Should snorkel and dive operators elsewhere mandate sunscreen abstinence by their customers? Should the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary impose such a regulation?

Maybe -- and maybe not. Although Xcaret's policy seems intuitively beneficial, nobody at the park or anywhere else can point me to scientific research confirming the hazard. Has anyone even studied the question?

"Not to my knowledge," says Samuel C. Snedaker, Ph.D., a marine ecologist at the University of Miami's Rosensteil School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS).

"I have searched widely in the scientific literature and have seen nothing," reports Kay Hale, head of the RSMAS library.

"As far as I know, there has not been any aquatic toxicology research on sunscreens," says Dan Knorr, chief executive officer of sunscreen manufacturer Tropical Seas, Inc., in Daytona Beach. His firm's Beach Buff products contain sesame and grapeseed oils, which he says will break down more rapidly than mineral oil, a petroleum derivative that forms the base for many other sunscreen preparations. Because sunscreen products are biodegradable, Knorr says, they probably don't affect fish, corals, and other marine species.

Rodney Fujita, senior scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund in Oakland, CA, also has seen no scientific documentation that sunscreens are harmful to marine life -- but he's not ready to discount the possibility.

"The dominant ideology of our society is to act first and think later. We don't worry until some scientist shows that it's bad," Fujita says. "The burden of proof has been on environmentalists to show something is bad first, but if there's a reason to suspect that the substances in suntan lotions get off the skin and have the potential to affect marine life, the prudent thing would be to ask people not to use them and put the burden of proof on the manufacturers of these substances to show they're actually not harmful."

Help Stamp Out Junk Mail

One way to conserve trees and cut down on solid waste is to discourage junk mail. Whenever such mail contains a postage-paid return envelope, you can write "Help Stamp Out Junk Mail" on the contents and mail them back to the sender. This sends a clear message. If 100,000 people sent such a message, and the mailers took those people off their lists, we could save about 150,000 trees a year.

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