The Earth Day theme this year is “Restore Our Earth.” There are many in the territory committed to this mission, doing amazing work every day.
Let us salute and celebrate the passionate efforts of those residents who help preserve our islands by keeping our beaches clean, recycling, composting, adopting solar power, preserving coral, hunting lion fish, launching a sustainable agriculture plan, investing in aquaponics, educating on sustainability and resilience, choosing electric vehicles and advancing ecotourism. We also applaud the determination of those fighting for a container deposit to reduce litter, elimination of single use hotel amenities, banning of Styrofoam containers, fighting for pollution accountability at Limetree Bay for clean air, clean water, toxic waste cleanup and the rebuilding of Caneel Bay Resort among others.
There are many areas where we still need to take urgent action. It is an SOS call. One of the easiest is education and enforcing the toxic sunscreen law. Although the law banning the importation, sale and use of sunscreens containing the “Toxic 3 Os” of Oxybenzone, Octinoxate and Octocrylene has been in effect for over a year, these products can still be found on the shelves of many territory stores and there have been little to no efforts to expand education, implementation or enforcement.
It is not clear whether U.S. customs is stopping importation or whether the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs has been enforcing compliance by retailers.
Despite promises to the contrary, the Department of Tourism hasn’t included messaging about safe sunscreen in its marketing communications and it doesn’t appear to be mentioned anywhere on its official tourism site. No steps have been taken to educate or encourage compliance.
Our Governor, who is a strong advocate for preserving our marine life, himself has observed a brown sheen caused by toxic sunscreen when he has visited Magens Bay after cruise ship passengers departed. It has been observed at many other beaches as well including Trunk Bay.
However last summer and fall we observed clear, azure blue, emerald green waters at most beaches as hardly any tourists were swimming. Why? Because there was no toxic sunscreen entering the ocean.
Now even without cruise ships, our beaches have been full and at times overcrowded especially during the recent Easter holiday. Many have been seen using toxic sunscreen and that brown sheen is back. As a tourism-based economy, once our marine life is depleted, beaches trashed and polluted with plastics — including single use plastic bags, plastic straws — cigarette butts, toxic sunscreen — we will no longer draw tourists.
Let us not allow the ban on toxic sunscreen to go the way of plastic bags – with many retailers continuing to provide disposable plastic bags despite an official ban.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, the only sunscreens deemed GRASE or generally recognized as safe and effective are mineral sunscreens, meaning those containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the active ingredients. The “Toxic 3 Os” in chemical sunscreens don’t simply stay on top of people’s skin, they absorb into their bodies and have been discovered in breast milk, blood and urine and can disrupt hormones. As seen in our waters, these chemicals also contaminate the sea and cause coral bleaching, ‘zombie’ coral which looks healthy but is unable to reproduce, and are dangerous to marine life.
Coral reefs are considered to have the highest biodiversity of any of the planet’s eco-systems and are vital to marine life and protecting coastlines. If we don’t enforce the ban, we risk losing the very beauty that attracts visitors to our shores.
We call on our government agencies to educate and enforce these laws. We urge you to write to the governor, senators and the delegate.
Former President Bill Clinton publicly gave his support for the ban and offered CGI’s assistance with reaching leadership of airlines and cruise lines on this important environmental campaign. But it needs to be officially requested.
Customs must stop banned products from entering and DLCA must hold offending retailers accountable with fines as outlined in the legislation. Tourism must work to ensure that when an airline ticket is issued, an automated notification about the ban is provided, similar to the communications about COVID-19 guidelines. There should be permanent signage at the airports and other points of entry as well as at beaches, restaurants, boating/watersports vendors and other public areas.
A “sunscreen swap” booth would allow visitors to turn in banned product for safe mineral sunscreen. Sunscreen PSAs could be played on flights and information provided in-room at hotels and rental properties. These are just the basics, Island Green and CORE developed and published a full plan. Visit www.islandgreenliving.org for details.
In addition to calling on agencies to do their part, the public must take responsibility too. This means reading ingredient labels and ensuring you are using only safe sunscreen.
Become a “green ambassador” and speak up when you see a local retailer selling toxic products. Take a photo of the toxic sunscreen on the store shelf and post it on social media, call out the offenders. Feel free to send it to Island Green and we will inform DLCA. Let’s support short-staffed DLCA to help preserve our islands.
Tourism, let’s issue a code of conduct /reminders to tourists — along with the sampling of rum, offer the guidelines.
On a positive note, during a recent meeting with V.I. Delegate Stacey Plaskett, we spoke about the possibility of national legislation on toxic sunscreen and she was open to exploring the idea. Thank you, Delegate.
We the community can make a difference. Today provides a chance to reflect on our important role in furthering green initiatives – reaffirming the tenets of Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
Let’s get this right so next Earth Day, we can restore our faith in officials for educating and enforcing laws that will get closer to “Restoring our Earth.”
— Harith Wickrema, St. John