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High concentrations of fully intact, never broken down DDT remain on the California seafloor decades after it was dumped off its southern coast in the middle of the 20th century.
“We still see original DDT on the seafloor from 50, 60, 70 years ago, which tells us that it’s not breaking down the way that [we] once thought it should,” University of California Santa Barbara scientist David Valentine, Ph.D., told the Los Angeles Times.
“And what we’re seeing now is that there is DDT that has ended up all over the place, not just within this tight little circle on a map that we referred to as Dumpsite Two.”
These findings underscore the enormity of legal and regulatory decisions to approve production of hazardous chemicals.
While many may believe the legacy of DDT ended with its ban in the early 1970s, the California findings raise a deeper problem not only with U.S. chemical policy, but also the response from well-meaning environmental nonprofits that continues to play out to this day.
As many in the environmental community invest tremendous resources in seeking to ban problematic pesticides or chemicals of the day after the contamination has occurred (DDT being a prime example), the associated challenges of time, cost and limited success, point to the critical need for environmental laws to assess the full life-cycle (manufacture, transportation, storage, use and disposal) of a chemical’s potential poisoning and contamination before coming to market.
Advocates maintain that this front-end analysis must prevent the allowance of toxic substances in light of the availability of nontoxic practices and products.
In 2000, a legal fight alerted the world to the fact that Montrose Chemical Corp., the main manufacturer of DDT throughout the mid-20th century, had dumped over 100 tons of DDT into the Los Angeles sewer system, contaminating the Palos Verdes Shelf along the coast.
While a plan was set in place for this location, effectively no attention was given to evidence from shipping logs that, after WW2, DDT was regularly loaded onto barges and dumped in massive quantities a few miles out to sea. In 2020, this stockpile was rediscovered, discovered by Dr. Valentine on a hunch as he set out to study other aspects of the sea floor.
Research published last year finds that this massive stockpile has hampered wildlife recovery efforts of along coastal California.
Dolphins, sea lions, other marine mammals and the iconic California condor have all been found burdened with contamination from DDT and related compounds. In total, these animals recorded an astounding 415 different chemicals in their bodies.
Critically, condors that spend their time along the coast contain seven times more DDT in their blood than findings from inland condors. This contamination places us back at square one, with reports as far back as 2006 showing thinning eggshells within condor nests.
The recent findings have generated interest from the federal government, which has put over $10 million into further researching the extent of the contamination. The finding is a Pandora’s box of revelations. The dump site is shockingly larger than initially assumed and is not limited to DDT.
As John Lyons, acting deputy director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region 9 Superfund Division, told the Los Angeles Times, “When the DDT was dumped, it is highly likely that other materials — either from the tanks on the barges or barrels being pushed over the side of the barges — would have been disposed at the same time.”
For the DDT itself, evidence suggests that it is concentrated in a layer that is a mere two and a quarter inches below the surface of the sea floor, meaning that any disturbance effectively has the ability to generate contamination. According to the Los Angeles Times, researchers could not even retrieve a “control” sample from the ocean floor as it came up contaminated with DDT.
Place these findings in the context of an understanding that the campaign to ban DDT was successful. With these data, the only response can be an attempt to contain further damage.
But it is critical that from these events we learn and apply lessons for future fights against toxic pesticides. It is not enough to merely ban a pesticide.
To this day, the EPA’s answer to eliminating the remaining stocks of a banned pesticide is to use it up before the ban takes effect. In other words, remaining barrels are not dumped in a specific location but diluted throughout the nation and world.
For example, even with the known, Stockholm Convention-banned wood preservative pesticide pentachlorophenol, U.S. regulations banning the chemical provide a generous five-year phase-out to allow for the use of remaining stocks.
Although this material is on its way out after decades of poisoning and contamination, over the course of its lifecycle it has created numerous Superfund sites that have harmed generations of families and continues to this day.
Moreover, this decision makes little impact on the broader wood preservative industry, which can continue to manufacture wood products coated with materials like copper chromium arsenate or creosote, another chemical that has a multigenerational legacy of harm.
While eliminating ongoing damage and immediate threats are critical aspects of environmental work, the environmental community must shift its focus to demanding the reframing of environmental law to address the full life cycle of a chemical’s poisoning and contamination.
Beyond Pesticides has long sought for the adoption of alternative assessments in the pesticide registration process.
With this approach, the precautionary principle is embraced, and if nonchemical or less toxic alternatives are currently available for a proposed new chemistry, that material will not be registered.
In order to safeguard health and the environment now and for future generations, it is critical to seek and pass laws with a shelf-life as long as the toxicological activity of the materials it regulates.
By embracing living laws and regulations that stop the production of toxic pesticides at the source, we can avoid burdening future generators with the same hazardous legacy we must now confront.
For more information on Beyond Pesticides priorities for federal pesticide reform, and to join us in seeking these reforms, see the article “Groups Tell EPA’s Pesticide Program It’s a Failure, Call for Immediate Reforms.”
Originally published by Beyond Pesticides.