A tiny island in the Pacific will lead the world's first initiative to stop chemical pollution killing coral reefs by banning toxic sunscreens in 2020, the Guardian reports.
Palau, an island nation located in the northwest Pacific, east of the Philippines, is a world-famous diving destination known for its incredible coral reefs.
However, tourism is taking a toll on its marine ecosystem, and swimmers' sunscreen is introducing harmful chemicals into the water.
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Palau's dive sites host around four boats an hour, which amounts to gallons of sunscreen going into the ocean, according to a spokesman for President Tommy Remengesau.
"We're just looking at what we can do to prevent pollution getting into the environment," he told the Guardian.
Palau's government has identified 10 chemicals — contained in about half of sunscreens — that will be banned beginning Jan. 1, 2020. Among the reef-toxic substances on the list are oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, and some parabens, the Guardian reports.
Even a drop of sunscreen containing these chemicals is enough to poison a fragile coral reef, according to a study released in 2015. Considering between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reefs each year, these ecosystems are at serious risk.
Oxybenzone is particularly harmful and has been known to exacerbate coral bleaching, which causes coral to starve and can destroy entire ecosystems.
To enforce the ban, Palau will fine anyone importing or selling toxic sunscreens, and confiscate products from tourists, the Guardian reports.
Divers and ocean swimmers around the world can take steps to reduce their impact on marine ecosystems by switching to sunscreens free of reef-toxic chemicals, or wearing wetsuits and rashguards instead.
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Sunscreens may prevent people from getting painful sunburns, but like many quick fixes to human problems, they have a host of consequences for the environment. To protect coral reefs, we must not only cut back on our use of chemical-ridden products and use more eco-friendly alternatives, but also ensure our inventions are environmentally responsible moving forward.
The government can impose regulations to protect the environment and consumers can change their purchasing habits. But the real onus is on industries to "step up and innovate," Craig Downs, executive director at the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Hawaii told the Guardian.
By banning toxic sunscreens, Palau is setting an example for the nations around the world to take legal action on behalf of the environment and conserve precious ecosystems.