Up to half a million barrels of toxic DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) waste may be sitting discarded on the ocean floor, off the coast of Los Angeles, California.
In a chilling exposé by Rosanna Xia, an environment reporter for the Los Angeles Times, photos taken by a deep-sea robot show barrels covered in sediment, some with slashes through them because, “when the barrels were too buoyant to sink on their own, one report said, the crews simply punctured them.”1
Some of the other more disturbing elements uncovered were shipping logs that show thousands of barrels of DDT-laced acid sludge were dumped into the ocean each month following World War II.
And while workers were supposed to go out to “Dumpsite No. 1,” located about 10 nautical miles northwest of Catalina Island, “Regulators reported in the 1980s that the men in charge of getting rid of the DDT waste sometimes took shortcuts and just dumped it closer to shore.”2 Rumblings of a secret dumpsite in the deep ocean have been going on for decades, but only a handful of individuals have followed the story.
What they’ve uncovered suggests the toxic dumping ground could be slowly releasing poison into the ocean environment or, perhaps worse, could one day explode copious amounts into the surrounding area, contaminating it with DDT at unprecedented levels. Perhaps even more unsettling, no one seems to know what to do about it.
California Was Home to the Largest DDT Producer
Montrose Chemical Corp. opened a plant near Torrance, California, in 1947 to manufacture DDT. It was the largest such manufacturer in the U.S., operating from 1947 to 1982. To this day, the plant’s site is regarded as one of the most hazardous in the U.S., but at the time DDT was thought of as a wonder chemical.
“The chemical industry was celebrated at the time for boosting the nation into greater prosperity and preventing crop failures across the globe. The United States used as much as 80 million pounds of DDT in one year,” Xia wrote, above a photo showing beachgoers frolicking in massive DDT clouds, which were sprayed on U.S. beaches to eliminate mosquitoes.
It would be nearly two decades before marine biologist Rachel Carson would sound the alarm that chemicals like DDT were destroying nature. In the meantime, DDT was praised as “the war’s greatest contribution to the future health of the world” by Brig. Gen. James Simmons, the U.S. Army’s chief of preventive medicine, during World War II — a time when the chemical was sprayed onto soldiers to protect them from malaria and typhus.3
Montrose quickly became a key player in supplying governments around the globe with DDT, and even continued to produce it for another 10 years after it was banned in the U.S. in 1972. “Demand was still strong in other countries,” Xia noted, “… so the chemical plant in Los Angeles kept churning out more.”4
In its early years of production, the ocean was considered to be an acceptable place to dispose of waste. “Dilution is the solution to pollution, the saying used to go,” the article quips, but with chemicals as toxic as DDT, there’s only so much the environment can take.
In addition to being very persistent in the environment, DDT is known to accumulate in fatty tissues and travels long distances in the upper atmosphere.5 It’s because of its persistence in the environment that even residues (or barrels of them) dumped decades ago remain a significant environmental and human health concern.
Underwater Robot Reveals Toxic DDT Legacy
David Valentine, a professor of geochemistry and microbiology at UC Santa Barbara, and Veronika Kivenson, a Ph.D. student in marine science, were among a team of scientists who published research showing that the ocean dumping of DDT waste was a “sloppy process,” and the barrels on the ocean floor are “readily breaching containment and leading to regional scale contamination of the deep benthos.”6
They cited a technical report by Allan Chartrand, a former scientist at the California Regional Water Quality Control Board in Los Angeles, who estimated the area may contain 336,000 to 504,000 barrels of acid sludge waste contaminated with residues of DDT.
The barrels were dumped by Montrose at an estimated rate of 2,000 to 3,000 per month — an amount equal to about 1 million gallons of waste per year — from 1947 to 1961.7 This was a legal process at the time, and the researchers suggested the waste may contain 0.5% to 2% DDT, amounting to a total DDT discharge of 384 tons to 1,535 tons.8 As Xia wrote:9
“Federal ocean dumping laws dated back to 1886, but the rules were focused on clearing the way for ship navigation. It wasn’t until the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, also known as the Ocean Dumping Act, that environmental impacts were considered. Dumping industrial chemicals near Catalina was an accepted practice for decades.”
Montrose Already Involved in Toxic Superfund Site
This wasn’t Montrose’s only offense, however. The company also discharged DDT-laden waste into storm drains and sewer systems from 1950 to 1971. This contaminated the Palos Verdes Shelf with up to 1,450 tons of DDT, the ramifications of which are still being dealt with today.
After being declared a 17-square mile Superfund site in 1996, a more than $140 million settlement agreement was reached, to be paid by Montrose, local governments and several other companies connected to the plant.
“The settlement — one of the largest in the nation for an environmental damage claim — would pay for cleanup, habitat restoration and education programs for people at risk of eating contaminated fish,” according to Xia, but after decades of studies and meetings trying to determine how to clean up the site, efforts have stalled, and an EPA review suggests DDT levels have been slowly declining anyway.10
“To have the EPA say, 25 years later, that maybe the best thing to do is to just let nature take its course is, frankly, nothing short of nauseating,” Mark Gold, a marine scientist who’s worked closely with the DDT issue, told Xia.11
In August 2020, Montrose reached another settlement agreement, this time for $56.6 million, over groundwater contamination, but neither of the prior settlements address the potential devastation that could be caused by the deep-sea dumping site. Samples of sediment in the area revealed DDT concentrations up to 40 times higher than the greatest concentration found at the Palos Verdes Superfund site.12
DDT’s Toxic Effects
Exposure to DDT is linked to reproductive effects in humans, and the chemical is classified as a probable human carcinogen that’s been linked to liver tumors in animal studies.13 Like many environmental toxins, DDT passes freely through the placenta during pregnancy, where it gains direct access to the developing fetus and may have lifelong ramifications.
One study revealed that women exposed to the most DDT before birth were 2.5 to 3.6 times more likely to develop high blood pressure before the age of 50 than those with the lowest prenatal exposure.14
Elevated levels of DDT are also associated with high blood pressure in adults,15 while exposure to DDT is also known to induce epigenetic changes that promote obesity and kidney, testis and ovary disease that are passed on to future generations.16 Other toxic effects of DDT exposure in humans include:17
- Developmental abnormalities
- Reproductive disease
- Neurological disease
Environmentally, significant harms have also been exposed by various people and publications, beginning with Carson’s book “Silent Spring” more than five decades ago. Biologists learned that pesticides like DDT were bio-accumulating in wildlife and becoming more concentrated as they moved up the food chain. Birth defects in wildlife have also been linked to the chemical,18 which is linked to a wide range of negative environmental impacts.
Among them, pelican eggshells with the highest concentrations of DDT were thinner than those with the lowest concentrations, which suggests exposure poses a risk of reproductive impairment.19
It was also due to DDT that bald eagle populations were decimated in the U.S. After contaminating waterways and fish — one of eagles’ favorite foods — eagles were poisoned by DDT and produced eggs with thin shells that often broke before their offspring could hatch.20
While DDT is now banned in the U.S., it’s still used in certain countries as a pesticide to control mosquitoes that may transmit malaria. The Stockholm Convention in 2001 called on countries to eliminate their use of DDT, but, as reported in Environmental Health, “Due to the … Gates Foundation Malaria Control Program the use of DDT in Africa and other parts of the world has increased.”21
‘We Still Don’t Have a Plan’
While it’s clear that DDT is one of the most widespread pollutants of our time, what to do about it remains much more of a mystery. As usage continues in some parts of the world, researchers wrote in Chemosphere:22
“Our findings suggest continued negative human health and environmental impacts from DDT. There is an urgency to move away from DDT as quickly as possible; alternatively, to implement practices that prevent emissions of DDT to the environment while protecting human life.”
The far-reaching health effects continue to be uncovered. In 2016, it was revealed that DDT may inhibit P-glycoprotein, a “defense protein” that’s important for protecting organisms against environmental toxins.23 “Even in small amounts, these contaminants could interfere with the human body’s natural ability to defend itself,” Xia noted.24
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of DDT-contaminated waste barrels are sitting on the ocean floor, likely sending a steady stream of the poison into the open ocean. When researchers tested the blubber of eight southern California bottlenose dolphins, it contained 45 bioaccumulative DDT-related compounds, 80% of which are not typically monitored.25
The dolphins lived in deeper waters, which was why researchers were surprised at their results, which showed higher levels of DDT than dolphins tested in Brazil and other areas. As for the DDT dumping ground, “These barrels do seem to be leaking over time,” Kivenson told Xia. “This toxic waste is just kind of bubbling down there, seeping, oozing, I don’t know what word I want to use … It’s not a contained environment.”26
Unfortunately, as is the case with many environmental pollutants, the cleanup process is complex, even insurmountable. Once the problem is detected, as is now becoming evident off the California coast, the next question is what to do about it. “These chemicals are still out there, and we haven’t figured out what to do,” Amro Hamdoun with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography told Xia. “They are an issue, and we still don’t have a plan.”27
Adding to the problem, even though DDT was banned in the U.S., it was simply replaced with other equally unsafe and untested chemicals, such as glyphosate, adding multiple layers of chemical exposures to an already adulterated environment. Your best option now and in the future is to take steps to avoid environmental pollutants as much as possible while adding in elements to help your body detoxify.