Hawaii made a huge mistake; will the city of Key West do the same? In the midst of an epidemic rise in the rate of skin cancer in the state of Florida and across America, the Key West City Council has before its members a disastrous course of action. A proposed city ordinance would ban two popular sunscreen ingredients. These ultraviolet filters are found in 70% of all sunscreen formulations and are essential in creating advanced SPF products.
Why is this measure under consideration? Earlier this year, Hawaii banned sunscreens that contain these filters. Its Governor voiced concern over coral bleaching (as the death of coral species is often called). Despite widespread media coverage, and even some fringe science, there is no definitive evidence supporting the association between coral bleaching and sunscreen. In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. While sunscreen does not cause the death of coral it does prevent death in people. Decades of science and published studies tell us that regular sunscreen use reduces skin cancer risk. This year, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be as many as 5.4 million new cases of non-melanoma skin cancer – that is more than 10,000 new cases every DAY. The incidence of basal cell carcinoma has increased by 145%. New cases of squamous cell carcinoma have increased by 263%. Rates of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, are also skyrocketing. Between 1982 and 2011, melanoma rates doubled. This year, more than 178,000 cases will be diagnosed. These numbers just begin to paint a picture of the epidemic nature of skin cancer.
The good news is that medical scientists and practicing physicians are making some headway. While novel treatments have helped to change our approach to patients with skin cancer, primary prevention is our most useful tool. Guiding patients toward sun-safe behavior can be challenging. Despite all of the risks – including cancer, disfigurement and premature aging – some people still engage in risky behaviors. Any rationale, true or not, could easily cause those who want a tan to avoid sunscreen. The recent measles outbreak in California should serve as a warning against the risks of drawing conclusions based on faulty science. Parents, taking advice from individuals unqualified to offer any, failed to immunize their children against this potentially deadly disease.
I’m a native Floridian. I understand that the destruction of our precious local resources can be catastrophic for our beloved state.
Often, local governments are left to deal with damaging policies far from their scope of influence. Such seems to be the case with coral bleaching. The death of coral species is closely correlated with increased ocean temperature. Bleaching exists on reefs that have no human visitors. Conversely, some of the most crowded reefs are thriving. There is direct evidence, some produced by vocal proponents of the sunscreen hypothesis that clearly contradicts their proposal.
With that said, many well-intentioned local lawmakers want to do something. In this case, that “something” will not only fail to help the reefs, it will cause irreparable harm to residents and visitors alike.
In banning the majority of sunscreens, Hawaii is not simply tilting at windmills, it is causing harm. Its imagined foe is sunscreen, but the reefs do not know this. Investing precious resources into a faulty effort will exhaust the attention of local lawmakers, making it less likely that they will have the energy to promote true and effective environmental efforts. In the meantime, my patients and all who love and work in Key West will suffer terribly.
Hopefully the Key West City Commission will have the wisdom that was so clearly absent in Hawaii. Andrew Weinstein, MD, MPH President, Florida Society of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew Weinstein MD,MPH President, Florida Society of Dermatology and Dermatologic Surgery Immediate Past President, American Society for Mohs Surgery Voluntary Associate Professor, University of Miami, Miller School of Medicine. Diplomate, American Board of Dermatology Boynton Beach.