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Key Westers Watch While Tallahassee Tries To Undo Block On Sale Of Some Sunscreens

Supporters of a ban on sale of sunscreen with two ingredients hold signs in front of Key West City Hall in 2019.
Nancy Klingener
Conservationists successfully lobbied the city of Key West to ban the sale of sunscreens with two chemicals believed to harm corals.

Key West last year became the first place in the mainland U.S. to ban the sale of sunscreens containing two chemicals that studies have found harm coral. Now, a bill is making its way through the Legislature that could overturn that ban before it is implemented.

The Key West environmental group Reef Relief led the campaign to ban the sale of sunscreens with octinoxate and oxybenzone in the city. Dozens of people turned out at City Commission meetings to debate the measure, which was eventually approved by a 6-1 vote.

The advocates are watching from hundreds of miles away as the state Legislature moves to undo their work — with the strong encouragement of the industry that makes the sunscreens.

"We can't hire 50 lobbyists like they can," said Mill McCleary, Reef Relief's executive program director. "They're multimillion-dollar corporations. They can station people in Tallahassee for the entire session. We just don't have the manpower or the money they do."

McCleary is holding out some hope that Gov. Ron DeSantis may veto the bill. That's what DeSantis did last year to a bill that would have prevented local governments from banning the sale of plastic straws.

Credit Nancy Klingener / WLRN
The personal care industry, as well as dermatologists, say limiting the availability of some kinds of sunscreen could increase the risk of skin cancers.

DeSantis said Thursday he has not yet made up his mind on the sunscreen bill and will consider whether Key West's move impacts state policy or infringes on people's freedoms.

"If it's something purely local, which I thought the plastic straws was, I was like, if you don't like it, you can put someone else in," he said.

Key West Mayor Teri Johnston voted in favor of the ban. She said Key West's decision is not Tallahassee's business.

"I don't know of any legislative body that has more information and understands the impact to the local economy more than we do in the local Key West government," she said.

The ban is scheduled to take effect in January of next year — the same time as a similar measure approved by the state of Hawaii.

Environmentalists recommend using "ocean-friendly" sunscreens that use minerals like zinc instead of those covered by the ban.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.