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The research vessel Sally Ride set sail off the coast of Los Angeles in hopes of documenting the underwater graveyard of DDT — dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane — waste barrels. On April 26, 2021, images of DDT barrels — roughly 3,000 feet underwater — off the coast of Santa Catalina Island were released.
To discover where the barrels were located exactly, scientists used two deep-sea robots to gather sonar images. These images quickly overwhelmed the researchers as tens of thousands of barrels started to appear. For the scientists, it was like trying to count the stars in the Milky Way.
Dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane was developed in the 1940s as the first of modern synthetic insecticides. Initially, it was used to combat typhus, malaria, and other insect-borne human diseases among civilian and military populations.
They also used it for insect control in livestock and crop productions, gardens, homes, and institutions. DDT quickly became successful as a pesticide and was broadly used in the United States and other countries. This led to the development of resistance of many pesky insect species.
In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) canceled all orders of DDT due to its adverse environmental effects on wildlife and possibly humans. Some studies show that animals exposed to DDT developed liver tumors. Today, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane is classified as a probable human carcinogen by international and U.S. authorities.
The graveyard of barrels was found to be larger than scientists originally thought. After scanning the seafloor for two weeks, researchers discovered the dumping ground was larger than San Francisco. They also found there was no end to the dumping site. No matter what direction they went in they found more DDT barrels.
The research trip was led by Eric Terrill of UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. There were 31 scientists and crew members aboard Sally Ride. Terrill said that he was “shocked that it just kept extending as far as it did.” Adding further that they “couldn’t keep up with the flow of data coming in.”
In the Fall of 2020, The Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S.’s largest DDT manufacturer once dumped its waste deep into the ocean. It is suspected that at least half a million barrels could still be underwater today.
A recent study by UC Santa Barbra provided images of DDT pollution bubbling 3,000 feet under the sea. Terrill shared his team’s findings in a U.S. congressional briefing that was led by Senator Dianne Feinstein (California-Democrat). Feinstein has been diligently fighting for action since the Los Angeles Times report about the barrels first broke out.
The California Senator plans on asking the U.S. Justice Department to look into companies who may have illegally dumped DDT barrels. Feinstein said that “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.”
She further stated that she was happy “the Biden administration shares my concern about this issue and took action quickly.” At least 27,000 barrel-sized anomalies were discovered by Terrill’s team. With the help of some computer analysis, they also found over 100,000 total debris objects on the seafloor.
Terrill noted these numbers could actually be higher due to some of the DDT barrels being buried by sediment.
Written by Sheena Robertson
Los Angeles Times: Stunning DDT dump site off L.A. coast much bigger than scientists expected; by Rosanna Xia
EPA: DDT – A Brief History and Status
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Bryce Bradford’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License