How Barrel After Barrel of DDT Ended Up On the Ocean Floor

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Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

How Barrel After Barrel of DDT Ended Up On the Ocean Floor

By: Samantha Haugen

Accepting that toxic chemicals do currently have a place in our society is important. It is perhaps the first step in understanding how DDT entered our lives.

Whether you like it or not, toxic chemicals do exist. They are being used. Trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle, I avoid using them whenever possible. However, a case can be made for using toxic chemicals in the right setting.

When used and disposed of appropriately, containment is possible. And the benefits separated from the harm. They’re in our cleaning products and household goods. Even if you do not agree with the decision to put them there, they are there nonetheless.

They are even in common medical practices such as chemotherapy. Currently, it is one of the few practices potent enough to battle the spread of cancer. When used in the right setting. And with the correct dosage. The benefits of that potent chemical compound are obvious.

When, is the keyword. When used and disposed of appropriately, we can benefit. When used carelessly. When disposed of thoughtlessly… The consequences are just as potent as the chemicals themselves. They can be extreme and deadly.

One such chemical compound we are still struggling to grapple with is DDT.

What Is DDT and How Did It Come to Enter Our Lives?

DDT is short for an extremely unpronounceable chemical compound, dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethene. There may be a few readers familiar with its scientific title. But most of us are more apt to use the abbreviated name ─ DDT.

Most of us also carry negative associations with DDT. Somewhere in the recesses of our minds, we recognize it as a toxic chemical. One that has an association with Montrose Chemical Corporation.
 
The exact extent of Montrose’s actions are still being calculated to this day. The toxicity of DDT itself is still being studied to this day. And, DDT is leaking into our environment, still to this day. 

Hopefully, a few questions have popped into your head at this point. One of them may loosely be concerned with just how long ago did DDT leave our lives? And, is that far back enough to make us safe from it today? Highly toxic chemicals have a tendency to be very hard to completely eradicate. Unfortunately for us, DDT is no exception.

A Quick History Lesson on DDT

DDT has not had an active presence in our lives since 1972. That year, the EPA moved forward with listing it as an illegal compound in the United States. DDT, however, had a very active life for a few decades before this mandate. Understanding just how mainstream DDT usage was will help us uncover how difficult it is to get rid of. It is a chemical that had widespread usage at one point in our history.

DDT was around long ago, but the 1940s really brought it into the spotlight. Of course, no one fully understood just how toxic DDT was when it gained popularity. Back in the 1940s, WWII was on everyone’s mind. Winning the war, and getting our soldiers home safe was a top priority.

This prompted researchers to view DDT as a solution. One that would mitigate the spread of diseases in our overseas soldiers. These included malaria and typhus.

Before WWII began, DDT proved helpful. The chemical compound was being used successfully as an insecticide. It effectively halted the spread of Colorado Potato Beetles.

Different from other insecticides, DDT lingered for days on end. It continued to protect crops from pests without a constant need to spray again.

With our soldiers facing diseases we didn’t fully understand, DDT gained traction. As many experts know, potency has the potential to have a link with toxicity in the chemical world.

There were individuals who warned that DDT’s effectiveness may be cause for concern. The vast majority, however, viewed DDT as protective. It shielded our soldiers from rampant diseases that inhibited war efforts. Distribution to the front lines began in the form of aerosol spray bombs. It was also distributed in personal powder cans. The soldiers put these to quick use.

This large distribution by wartime efforts also created widespread public appeal back home. A sort of frenzied enthusiasm began to surround DDT and quickly became widespread.

Advertisements catered towards housewives were popping up left and right. Mothers were being encouraged to use DDT in the household to protect their children. To get rid of “disease-carrying insects!”

DDT became an active part of society. The U.S government sprayed it by the truckload down urban streets. They even sprayed it on public beaches.

Farmers used it extensively in their fields as well. Many did so without any thought about consequences to their health.

It wasn’t until 1962, when Rachel Carson published ‘Silent Spring,’ that the widespread use of DDT fell under public scrutiny. Carson’s meticulously researched novel opened the public’s eye to just how toxic DDT is to living things. 

Safety concerns about DDT began to gain widespread attention. The same kind of attention that initially popularized the chemical compound. The rose-colored glasses were being replaced with a much more serious tone on just how toxic DDT could be.

DDT would kill more than the “disease-carrying insects” and pests killing our crops. It would kill hundreds of different kinds of insects all at once.

Carson described how DDT is stored in the fatty tissues of different species. She detailed how DDT increases in toxicity as it spreads up the food chain to humans.

Rather than metabolizing and ridding itself of DDT, the body stores it in fatty tissues. DDT is not excreted but rather accepted into the body. This is part of the reason why DDT is so potent. It also helps explain why it becomes more toxic as it moves up the food chain.

Carson detailed how DDT exposure was impacting wildlife and human beings. It was already showing links to cancer and genetic damage in species.

Silent Spring played a large role in exposing the harmful and lasting effects of DDT to the public. In 1972, the U.S banned the use of DDT. 

Even today, species are suffering the aftereffects of such widespread use of DDT. 

A point can be made that Montrose Chemical Corporation is largely responsible. Their methods of toxin removal are appalling at best and lethal at worst. 

Unfortunately, the several decades where DDT was legal in the U.S has had repercussions. Ones that are still researched.

Between 1947 and 1971, Montrose Chemical Corporation did a terrible thing. They dumped millions of pounds of chemical sludge containing DDT into the ocean. Where exactly? Try the waters off the California coast near Catalina Island. In later years, the atrocities did not stop. Montrose dumped more chemical runoff into the Los Angeles wastewater system.


DDT Effects on Humans

The extent of contaminated sediment on the ocean floor is still being studied. Researchers estimate that over 100 tons of sediment is contaminated with DDT. This irresponsible dumping behavior is still having negative effects on wildlife. It plays a role in why bird and fish populations off the coast of Los Angeles are hurting. They have yet to fully recover from DDT exposure.

The negative effects of Montrose’s careless chemical removal practices have been especially seen in birds of prey. Ones such as peregrine falcons and bald eagles. DDT consumption has been responsible for extremely thin eggshells in their species. This has, in turn, led to sharp population declines and difficulty with reproduction.

Fish populations in our rivers and streams are also still consuming trace amounts of DDT. This exposure comes from agricultural runoff in our rivers and streams. The unknown ramifications of Montrose’s dumping have been massive and relentless. 

We too should be relentless in our continued efforts to hold Montrose responsible. Their actions have degraded our environment.

Montrose was sued by the state of California and the United States in 1990. They cited the environmental damage Montrose had caused.
Barrels of toxic sludge containing DDT are still scattered across the ocean floor.

The environmental impact this will continue to have on marine life and the surrounding ecosystem is unknown.

Environmental cleanup is still underway, all these decades later. Nearly half a million barrels could still be on the ocean floor. Barrels leaking toxins into the ocean and marine life surrounding Catalina Island.

DDT has been illegal in the U.S for many years. However, it is still used in other countries as a way to stop the spread of Malaria. Controlling Malaria is a difficulty faced by developing nations, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.

However, the rise of global temperatures is changing the geography of that as well. Mosquito-borne illnesses run the risk of becoming more widespread. Changes in temperature, precipitation, and humidity affect the lifespan of a mosquito. Increases in all three categories due to global warming is expanding the geographic areas exposed to Malaria. In low-income areas already struggling with insect-spreading diseases, this effect could be devastating.

DDT is still being used in other areas of the world. It is more important now than ever before to listen to what history has taught us. Our world is not perfect. Toxic chemical compounds exist and are being used. Deadly diseases are also destroying families and causing suffering beyond the imagination.

What Can You Do to Help?

Take action and introduce yourself to PAN, the Pesticide Action Network. They have many campaigns in the fight against toxins like DDT. They continue to look towards alternative or controlled and responsible solutions. That way diseases like Malaria can be controlled without negative consequences. Like those caused by DDT.

Montrose Chemical Corporation and its insurers are still paying. They are paying for their costly environmental damage. Let’s continue to educate ourselves on where they are today. Let’s continue to hold them responsible. Responsible for the degradation they have caused in our environment. Just this past April, a decision was reached in court. It outlines a new payment structure for Montrose and its policyholders.

Let’s come together as a community to learn from our past mistakes. Let’s continue to hold responsible guilty parties for environmental cleanup costs. And if we continue to use potent chemicals to stop the spread of deadly disease. Let’s do so in a responsible, controlled manner.


Author Bio: Samantha Haugen is an independent copywriter. As an avid reader, she believes the best way to lift our world up is through education. Learning followed up by responsible action. Shopping sustainably and working with nonprofits who share her goals has become more important to her in recent years.