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A DISTURBING DISCOVERY: In 2011, UCSB scientist David Valentine discovered a massive DDT dumping ground in the waters off Catalina Island. | Credit: Ingrid Bostrom

CA - The Santa Barbara Scientist Who Found Poison in the Pacific

David Valentine Discusses Discovering DDT Dumping Ground in Waters off Catalina Island and Charting New Course at UCSB

DEEP-SEA DDT:  Using a remote-controlled robot, Valentine and his team captured the first images of the barrels resting 3,000 feet below the water’s surface off the L.A. coast. Sediment samples they collected from the surrounding seafloor contained concentrations of DDT 40 times worse than DDT manufacturer Montrose’s notorious Superfund site in Palos Verdes. | Credit: Courtesy David Valentine

Pure DDT — the toxic insecticide banned in the U.S. in 1972 (but still in use in other parts of the world) — is poisoning the marine environment off the Los Angeles coastline near Catalina Island. The harmful chemical has blanketed the seafloor since hundreds of tons of DDT were dumped into the water more than 50 years ago.

UC Santa Barbara scientist David Valentine is the one who discovered the startlingly high concentrations of DDT 3,000 feet below the water’s surface, surrounding an underwater graveyard of leaking barrels filled with unknown chemical substances.

He says that it’s “goo-ifying the junk” of male sea lions (as well as destroying their spines, riddling them with tumors, and killing their kidneys) because of the nightmarish combination of herpes and toxic chemicals such as DDT (dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane) and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls).

In fact, the type of urogenital cancer only caused by that horrific duo is responsible for nearly 25 percent of adult sea lion deaths.

“It is the gnarliest cancer,” Valentine told me as we sat on the deck of a coffee shop in Goleta.

The sun was beating down, and Valentine was dressed casually, as someone might expect for a Santa Barbara–based oceanographer — baseball cap, cargo shorts, polo, backpack. But even with his laid-back appearance, it was never lost on me that he takes his work seriously.

“Just think if 25 percent of all human deaths were from one cancer,” he continued. “It’s an insane number — DDT is definitely part of that story.”

That’s just one of the problems associated with the stubborn, unforgiving compound polluting our ocean. Recent discoveries by Valentine and his fellow researchers show that it hasn’t broken down, remaining in its most potent form in high concentrations across miles of seafloor.

Efforts by Valentine and other researchers are now underway to map out the seafloor between the Los Angeles Coast and Catalina Island to determine how bad the problem really is. So far, the results have researchers feeling less than optimistic.

They’ve found that DDT was potentially dumped in two areas off the coast — Dumpsite 1, just northwest of Catalina Island in the Santa Monica Basin region, and Dumpsite 2, east of Catalina and 10 miles offshore of L.A. in the San Pedro Basin. Not only that, Dumpsite 2 seems to have no clear outer boundaries to the vast swath of ocean floor covered in debris and contaminated with toxic chemicals.

This chemical curse was bestowed upon the sea primarily by the nation’s largest DDT manufacturer, Montrose Chemical Corp., which operated a plant near Torrance from 1947 to 1982 and produced an estimated 800,000 tons of DDT over those 35 years. They poured the stuff straight into the water not far from the Channel Islands, which is a nursery for sea lions in California.

“They were manufacturing tons upon tons of this stuff,” Valentine said. “And they had pretty atrocious waste management practices.”

A Persistent Poison

Who knew that a colorless, odorless, tasteless compound once considered a Nobel Prize–worthy prevention method against disease-causing insects would hang around like a bad smell for decades?

Certainly not the 1950s housewives who sprayed it around their houses (including in nurseries), bought DDT-infused wallpaper, and were sold a retro, pastel promise that it was necessary for a happy and healthy home free from pests. Definitely not the kids who would play in the clouds of DDT sprayed down their streets to kill nearby mosquitos. Nor the military, which viewed it as the ultimate protection for soldiers against typhus and malaria.

Detail of a 1947 Pennsalt chemicals advertisement in Time magazine. | Credit: Courtesy

Valentine said it’s still causing issues in humans, including breast cancer, diabetes, birth defects, and obesity, and it has been recently shown to be passed down through generations. It was found that if a pregnant woman was exposed to DDT in the ’50s and ’60s, they could have passed it on to their granddaughter in the womb since the eggs of females develop very early in the embryogenesis process.

“They’re also starting to see that human breast milk often has some amount of DDT in it, even though it’s been banned for agricultural use since 1972,” Valentine said. “It’s still around, still getting into people.”

No regional linkages to effects on human health have been discovered yet, or at least publicized. But Valentine says he thinks people will start looking now to see if there’s more of a magnified effect in Southern California due to the new implications of how much DDT has proliferated off the region’s coast.

A Harrowing Discovery

Valentine began his research journey by immersing himself in the study of gas, particularly methane gas seeping from the seafloor.

However, his fascination quickly shifted to the oil that seeps out alongside it, which happens right offshore of Santa Barbara County in the oil seeps. During his tenure at UCSB, he’s also been involved in efforts to identify and seal leaky oil wells near Summerland Beach.

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