OFFSHORE DUMPING INDUSTRY
Stunning DDT dump site off L.A. coast much bigger than scientists expected
by Rosanna Xia / April 26, 2021
“When the research vessel Sally Ride set sail for Santa Catalina Island to map an underwater graveyard of DDT waste barrels, its crew had high hopes of documenting for the first time just how many corroded containers littered the seafloor off the coast of Los Angeles. But as the scientists on deck began interpreting sonar images gathered by two deep-sea robots, they were quickly overwhelmed. It was like trying to count stars in the Milky Way. The dumpsite, it turned out, was much, much bigger than expected. After spending two weeks surveying a swath of seafloor larger than the city of San Francisco, the scientists could find no end to the dumping ground. They could’ve kept going in any direction, they said, and uncovered even more. “I was pretty shocked that it just kept extending as far as it did,” said Eric Terrill of UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who led the mission of 31 scientists and crew members. “We couldn’t keep up with the flow of data coming in.”
Terrill shared these findings Monday in a U.S. congressional briefing led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has been pushing for action since The Times reported last fall that the nation’s largest DDT manufacturer once dumped its waste into the deep ocean. As many as half a million barrels could still be underwater today, according to old records and a recent UC Santa Barbara study that provided the first photos of this pollution bubbling 3,000 feet under the sea. “This mission confirms my worst fear: that possibly hundreds of thousands of barrels and DDT-laced sediment were dumped just 12 miles off our coast,” said Feinstein, who said she plans to ask the U.S. Justice Department to look into companies that may have illegally dumped waste into the ocean and whether they can be held accountable. “I’m pleased the Biden administration shares my concern about this issue and took action quickly. It’s critical that this momentum continues,” she said. “We need everyone to come to the table with all the resources necessary to solve a problem of this size.”
As Terrill’s team pored over gigabytes and gigabytes of sonar data, they were finally able to identify at least 27,000 barrel-sized anomalies — and more than 100,000 total debris objects on the seafloor – with the help of some computer analysis. The actual number of barrels could be even higher, he noted, because barrels that were half-buried by sediment, for example, may have been overlooked by the computer. The two-week expedition, made possible by a unique partnership between Scripps and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, had deployed two high-tech robots that alternated scoping more than 36,000 acres of seafloor with high-resolution sonar: As one robot worked underwater, covering about 140 football fields per hour, the other recharged, offloaded its data and got recalibrated by scientists on deck.
“View of the side-scan sonar data: The line represents the path of the autonomous underwater vehicle, and the white specks represent acoustic data identified as barrels and debris field objects. Scientists said trying to count each individual dot was like trying to count stars in the Milky Way.”
A number of unexpected challenges, including stubborn winds and heavy rain, complicated the process. When Terrill realized his crew would not be able to manually count each individual data point that the robots were collecting from the seafloor, he called in “the big data guns”: Sophia Merrifield, a physical oceanographer and researcher in the Marine Physical Laboratory at Scripps. Merrifield was astonished when Terrill sent her the first batch of sonar images. She jumped into action and started writing a computer algorithm that could sort through the immense amount of data while also accounting for the topography, the physics and the way sonar works in that part of the ocean. “Think about the geology on the bottom, because that affects the acoustics,” she said. “We talked pretty constantly while [Terrill] was out there: What are ways that we could train an algorithm to detect these targets in an automated way?”
“Scientists were able to map more 36,000 acres of seafloor — an area larger than the size of San Francisco — in the two weeks they had at sea. Results showed that the dumping was not contained to one area.”
Another shock was the fact that the dumping was clearly not contained to one designated spot. Everywhere the crew surveyed, there were barrels, said Mark Gold, who has followed the DDT problem as a marine scientist since the 1990s and currently serves as Gov. Gavin Newsom’s deputy secretary for coastal and ocean policy. “That to me was horrifying,” he said. “This is such a dark part of our environmental history.” Once hailed as a wonder pesticide, DDT saved crops and combated malaria across the world. The U.S. banned its use in 1972, but the chemical, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, is so stable it continues to poison the environment and move up the food chain. Significant amounts of DDT-related compounds are still accumulating today in Southern California dolphins, and a recent study linked the presence of these persistent chemicals to an aggressive cancer in sea lions.
“A heat map shows the concentrations of targets detected on the seafloor. Scientists found several distinct track-line patterns in the surveyed area, suggesting that the dumping was repeatedly done from an underway platform such as a moving ship or barge.”
For decades, the nation’s largest DDT maker operated its plant on the border of Los Angeles and Torrance. A $140-million Superfund battle in the 1990s exposed the company’s disposal of toxic waste through sewage pipes that poured into the sea — but all the DDT manufacturing waste that was dumped into the deep ocean had drawn comparatively little attention. Renewed outcry in recent months has focused on both the dumpsite and the Superfund site, which is still awaiting cleanup after more than 20 years of meetings and extensive studies. Gold, who has been in numerous high-level meetings on this issue, said that both state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have been following the Scripps-NOAA mapping efforts with great interest. Revisiting this history of deep-sea dumping has also raised questions of what other toxic chemicals and contaminants, in addition to DDT, could still be in the ocean today. Records show that numerous companies had dumped industrial waste in this area for several decades, beginning in the 1930s. “I can’t tell you how thankful I am that NOAA and Scripps took this initiative to really get the ball rolling,” Gold said.
David Valentine, whose UC Santa Barbara research team first came across about 60 barrels on the seafloor while conducting a different research project, said the new mapping data revealed interesting hot spots — and “hot lines,” suggesting the path of a ship or barge as the dumping occurred — that will help scientists figure out where to focus further sediment and chemical studies. “We’re starting to see the patterns of waste dumping that are going to guide us as we attempt to define the whole scope of this problem,” said Valentine, who has been inundated with calls and emails from fellow researchers, government officials and members of the public since The Times published its report in October. It’s still unknown what’s inside any of these barrels — or how much this deep-sea pollution has been moving through the marine ecosystem, he said. “Right now, we’re seeing the tip of the iceberg.” He felt a jumble of emotions as he examined the new data — maps of the seafloor covered with so many mysterious dots that hinted at just how widespread the dumping could be. “The Southern California offshore dumping industry clearly got away with dumping wherever they wanted,” he said, “and that really makes me wonder: What else did they get away with?”
DDT’s toxic legacy can harm granddaughters of women exposed, study shows
by Rosanna Xia / April 14, 2021
“When Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” first sounded the alarm on DDT and its devastating effects on birds and fish, our understanding of how this pesticide affected humans was just beginning. Chemicals can take years to reveal their insidious power, and so for decades, scientists have been piecing together — study by study — the reasons why DDT still haunts us today. First it was breast cancer in women who were exposed to this hormone-disrupting chemical in the 1950s and ‘60s. Then their daughters, who had been exposed in the womb. Researchers over the years have also linked DDT exposure to obesity, birth defects, reduced fertility and testicular cancer in sons. Now, a team of toxicologists, molecular biologists and epidemiologists at UC Davis and the Public Health Institute in Oakland have confirmed for the first time that granddaughters of women who were exposed to DDT during pregnancy also suffer from significant health threats: Higher rates of obesity and menstrual periods that start before age 11. Both factors, scientists say, may put these young women at greater risk of breast cancer — as well as high blood pressure, diabetes and other diseases. “This is further evidence that not only is a pregnant woman and her baby vulnerable to the chemicals that she’s exposed to — but so is her future grandchild,” said Barbara Cohn, director of the Public Health Institute’s Child Health and Development Studies, a multigenerational research project in California that has followed more than 15,000 pregnant women and their families since 1959. “This is something that people had always thought was possible,” she said, “but there had never been a human study to support the existence of that link.”
“Because of concerns about PFAS contamination, the Pentagon promised in 2016 that it would phase out use of firefighting foam. It has halted its use in training, but continues to apply it in aircraft fires.”
The findings come at a time of renewed public interest in DDT, a problem that had been largely tucked into a fading chapter of history. Concerns have intensified since The Times reported last fall that the nation’s largest manufacturer of DDT once dumped as many as half a million barrels of its waste into the deep ocean. The pesticide, now banned, is so stable it continues to poison the environment and move up the food chain. Significant amounts of DDT-related compounds are still accumulating in Southern California dolphins, and a recent study linked the presence of these persistent chemicals to an aggressive cancer in sea lions. As for humans, “there’s a clear line you can track of what’s happening,” said Linda Birnbaum, who, as the former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, has been following these multigenerational studies with great interest. “A lot of people want to think that the problems with DDT have gone away, because Congress banned it in 1972. Well, they haven’t,” said Birnbaum, who is now a scholar in residence at Duke University. “By the time the daughters got pregnant with the granddaughters, that was long after DDT had been banned — and yet they were carrying within them the seeds of these problems.”
“A member of the Bethany Slavic Missionary Church is baptized. Test results showed well water at the church contained toxic chemicals from firefighting foam used for decades on a now-shuttered Air Force base.”
More than 60 years ago, in the heyday of DDT, a team of scientists had the foresight to start collecting blood samples from more than 15,000 pregnant women at the Kaiser Permanente hospital in Oakland. At every trimester and also shortly after birth, each woman provided a sample that was studied and carefully archived. Researchers tested the blood for DDT, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, and continued to follow up on health assessments. They kept in touch with the women’s daughters, who had been exposed to DDT in the womb, and then with their granddaughters. They found, after years of research, that women heavily exposed to DDT during childhood are five times as likely to develop breast cancer, and that a mother’s DDT exposure during pregnancy, or immediately after birth, is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer for their daughter. Their daughters are also more likely to experience delays in getting pregnant. In this most recent study, published Wednesday in the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention, the research team found that the risk of obesity in the granddaughters — who are now in their 20s and 30s — was two to three times greater than women whose grandmothers had little DDT in their blood during pregnancy. These granddaughters were also twice as likely to have much earlier menstrual periods — another indicator of increased health risks later in life.
This persistent, generational exposure is likely related to the reproductive system, Cohn said. Since a female is born with all her eggs, a granddaughter is technically also exposed to DDT if her mother was exposed in the womb. “Even though we banned that stuff more than 40 years ago, people now walking the Earth — the granddaughters of those who were pregnant — were exposed,” Cohn said. She wonders if the increasing rates of childhood cancer, diabetes and other health problems affecting young people today are also somehow connected to these chemicals of the past. “It’s the full meaning of what a ‘forever chemical’ is — in some ways, that makes every chemical potentially ‘forever’ if it has the potential to do this.”
Bruce Blumberg, a professor of developmental and cell biology at UC Irvine, still remembers the trucks that used to spray massive amounts of DDT in farms and neighborhoods. At the supermarket where he worked as a kid, foggers would be brought inside at the end of each day. “The whole market would be full of a fog of DDT,” said Blumberg, who also teaches pharmaceutical sciences. “The industry would want you to believe that chemicals have no effect, because the doses are too low and there’s just no effects and it’s all crazy alarmists.” Blumberg now specializes in studying how chemicals in the environment can affect our genes and predispose people to obesity, which affects about 42% of Americans today. He conducts lab experiments on mice to answer the many questions that scientists have been unable to test on humans. That’s why the multigenerational Bay Area study, which he’s not affiliated with, is so important, he said. It provides much-needed human observational data that are incredibly hard to come by — perhaps even harder to maintain. “If we’re lucky, that cohort [of Bay Area women] will continue through four, five, six generations,” he said, “and we’ll really learn something about the effects of what happened in the past on the future.”
Akilah Shahid said she was shocked, yet fascinated, to learn that she was in the third generation of a major study on how chemicals in the environment could be affecting women. A biology major at Mills College, Shahid said it all clicked for her for when she dug into the research. Her family has been no stranger to health problems. Her grandmother alone has fought cancer three times. “I feel like, for a while, cancer just came out of nowhere,” she said. “You don’t know who’s going to get it, and now we have a reason why.” Shahid, now 30, exercises a lot. She tries to eat well. It empowers her to know that her weight isn’t completely her fault — and that there’s only so much within her control.
“From 1947 to 1982, the nation’s largest manufacturer of DDT operated in Los Angeles on Normandie Avenue near Del Amo Boulevard. The property is considered one of the most hazardous sites in the United States.”
DDT isn’t allowed anymore, but she can’t help but wonder about all the other chemicals still prevalent today — bisphenol A (BPA), per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and other manufactured compounds that don’t seem to ever go away. She avoids plastic water bottles and tries to be mindful of how her choices and actions right now could expose her future grandchildren to some unknown disease. “How many times have we talked about climate change and things that we need to do better for our children and grandchildren? This is more proof that hello, what we do today is going to affect people way forward,” she said. “I hope this is a wake-up call for a lot of people, because we’re talking about saving the environment again, today, for our future generations.”
WHAT DOESN’T KILL ME MAKES ME STRANGER
PRE-POLLUTED at BIRTH
a CONTROLLED BURN