Tubing on the Cowichan River is a popular summer pastime. A group of researchers is looking into how sunscreen is affecting the Cowichan watershed. (Gazette file)

Editorial: Go mineral if you’re dipping into the water this summer

To date we have not been proactive in protecting our aquatic environments

It’s the time of year where a warm sunny day sends us to look for the sunscreen we’re sure we still have shoved in the back of a drawer from last summer.

Aside from checking whether that old bottle has expired, you might also want to take a look and see if it’s a mineral sunscreen or a more traditional chemical sunscreen, if you’re looking to wear it while taking a dip in the water. Chances are it’s a chemical one, unless you deliberately bought a mineral sunscreen last year. And while those work perfectly well to protect your skin from sun damage that can cause skin cancer, growing amounts of research are indicating chemical sunscreens may be problematic for aquatic life, including everything from corals to fish.

In the Cowichan Valley, and indeed in Canada, we are fairly late to this party. While on vacation in other, mostly tropical, countries you may have already come across bans of chemical sunscreens if you took part in excursions that see you diving, snorkeling or otherwise playing in the water. Some places have regulations that go back more than a decade.

To date we have not been proactive in protecting our aquatic environments in the same way. It’s really only very recently that we’ve even begun to pay attention to this in any significant way. This summer the British Columbia Conservation Foundation in partnership with Vancouver Island University Chemistry Department and Applied Enviromental Research Lab will be taking a look at sunscreen compounds in the Cowichan watershed.

Cowichan Lake and the Cowichan River are favourite recreation spots for people during the summer, with swimming, boating and tubing bringing thousands to dip into the waters. Last summer, as part of the above research, a common sunscreen compound was found in the lake and the river, and unsurprisingly it was found in greater concentrations where people dive in.

While levels found are not considered harmful to aquatic life, there is an easy step we can take to make sure they stay that way: buy some mineral sunscreen for use when you go swimming this year. You can still use your other sunscreen when you’re not planning to go in the water, if you find that mineral sunscreens leave a white cast on your skin, which they often do.

It’s a small change; one that has almost no effect on your life. But it can help to protect our waters, whether your favourite is the ocean, the river or the lake. Not much to ask.