‘Under the sea, out of mind’ has turned into a ticking time bomb

From 1947 until 1961, one of the biggest environmental crimes of the past century was taking place right under our noses. Now, in 2022, this reckless action has proven to have major health implications — like cancer — not just for wildlife, but potentially for humans.

For nearly 15 years, Montrose Chemical Company was dumping barrels of DDT and acid sludge into the ocean just off the coast of Los Angeles near Santa Catalina Island. The estimated number — originally believed to be around 27,000 — now tops 500,000 barrels and covers an area much larger than the city of San Francisco.

As recompense for polluting the world’s greatest asset, Montrose Chemical Company and the other responsible parties settled with the Environmental Enforcement Section of the U.S. Department of Justice for just over $140 million in the 1990s-2000s. That amounts to under 10 cents per square foot of contaminated ocean floor, which hardly even registers as a slap on the wrist.

This is one of the most egregious cases of environmental destruction that the ocean has ever seen. Recent samples from the newly found dumping site show DDT concentrations 40 times greater than the highest contamination level at the initial Superfund site set up over 20 years ago.

Chemicals can take years — and in this case, decades — to show just how destructive they can be. That’s because as time goes on, the barrels slowly deteriorate, letting the DDT seep out into the food chain and the ocean environment. In this way, the toxins make their way from the barrels on the ocean floor to the fish sea lions eat. 

Why is this concerning? Starting in the late 1970s, veterinarians and researchers from The Marine Mammal Center noticed a startling and unique occurrence of fatal reproductive cancer among sea lions stranded along the California coast. Cancer in marine mammals, like most wildlife mammals, is rare — one percent or less develop some type of cancer. 

After decades of research, analysis of blubber samples, and the retrospective study of hundreds of cases and controls, the team and its colleagues discovered that this occurrence in California sea lions is tied in part to high burdens of toxic chemicals in the ocean, most notably DDT. 

If that story doesn’t sound the warning bells, this should: UC Davis scientists, alongside the Public Health Institute in Oakland, revealed that the granddaughters of women exposed to DDT during pregnancy suffer from significant health threats. These health threats put these women at a greater risk of breast cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other cardiometabolic diseases.

Sea lions are getting cancer at alarming rates due to DDT in their diet, and women that are two generations removed from DDT exposure are still facing significant health threats. 

What danger do these recent discoveries present to people consuming the same fish from the same contaminated water? Will these barrels continue to cause tidal waves of environmental destruction and serious health problems for years to come?

We call on U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra to use the authority of the FDA to work with the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to come up with a comprehensive plan to fully understand the effects that DDT in the ocean has on wildlife and human health, expedite the expansive cleanup needed to curb further issues and, most importantly, to stop this from ever happening again. We intend to bring together congressional members and state representatives, as well as critical nonprofit organizations working on the ocean’s frontlines, to support these critical initiatives.

It’s been more than six decades since these environmental criminals dumped hundreds of tons of DDT into the ocean. We thought we knew the magnitude of the dumping. It turned out to be much, much worse than we ever imagined. With cancer in sea lions, we might think we know the limits of the destructive impact of DDT. But it’s quite possibly just the tip of the iceberg. 

If we don’t act soon, the reckless actions of decades past will wreak havoc for generations to come. Let’s make sure the sins of the past don’t continue to be a burden for future generations.

Dr. Jeff Boehm is a veterinarian and Chief External Relations Officer for the Marine Mammal Center. Lieu represents California’s 33rd District and is co-chair of the California Coastal Caucus.

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