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Town of Lake Cowichan looks for ways to encourage water safe sunscreens

Some sunscreens harmful to environment
The Town of Lake Cowichan is looking for strategies to encourage the use of water-friendly sunscreens in its jurisdiction. (Metro Creative Services photo)

With summer just around the corner, the Town of Lake Cowichan is encouraging those who are planning to take part in water activities in Cowichan River or the lake during the upcoming warmer weather to use water-safe sunscreens.

At the March committee of the whole meeting, Coun. Aaron Frisby said that during a recent workshop between town representatives and the BC Conservation Foundation, it was suggested that the town enact a bylaw prohibiting the use of sunscreens that are harmful to water environments within its jurisdiction.

He said that at a previous town meeting, the idea of directing staff to talk to local stores and see if they would volunteer to not carry non-water friendly sunscreens was raised, but no decisions were made.


Coun. Carolyne Austin said she doesn’t think the municipality can tell local businesses what they can or can’t sell.

“But we can take it up with the [Cowichan Lake District Chamber of Commerce] to see if they would discuss it with their members to see if there is something they can do,” she said.

Cowichan Lake and Cowichan River are favourite recreation spots for people during the summer, with swimming, boating and tubing bringing thousands to dip into the waters.

But growing amounts of research are indicating chemical sunscreens may be problematic for aquatic life, including everything from corals to fish.

In the summer of 2020, as part of research into the issue, a common sunscreen compound was found in the lake and the river, and it was found in greater concentrations where people dive in, although at levels that were not considered harmful to aquatic life at that time.

Coun. Kristine Sandhu said establishing an outreach awareness education program on the issue this summer would be a good start, and the town can review the results of the program at the end of the season to see how it wants to proceed.


Mayor Tim McGonigle said the town should work with the province to ban not only harmful sunscreens on the river and lake, but anything that has an impact on the Cowichan River, which is considered a heritage river in Canada.

“A local bylaw, for instance is only as compliant as those who wish to follow it, and we see that everywhere,” he said.

“But just to do an outreach education program to the local businesses that do provide sunscreens would be a possible start. Education and communication is paramount on the aspects of what that product does. We saw a perfect storm last year with low-water flows and high temperatures that resulted in fish kills. Anything that we can do to mitigate the quality and pristineness of one of only 44 heritage rivers in Canada should be done, and if that means going and asking those businesses, I don’t see a problem with that.”

CAO Joe Fernandez said the use of harmful sunscreens is not just a Lake Cowichan problem.

He said signs near waterways saying people can’t use non-water friendly sunscreens can be seen all around the world.

“I suggest you may want to bring this up at the Union of B.C. Municipalities,” Fernandez said.

“It’s a big topic.”

The committee determined that reaching out to local businesses encouraging them not to sell non-water friendly sunscreens would be a good first step, and council will hold further discussions to determine what steps to take next at future meetings.

Robert Barron

About the Author: Robert Barron

Since 2016, I've had had the pleasure of working with our dedicated staff and community in the Cowichan Valley.
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