Dumping Pharmaceutical Waste In The Deep Sea


Several years ago as a young graduate student I was privy to gossip about a supposed site near Puerto Rico where pharmaceutical waste was dumped in the ocean. A senior scientist in my field told me that antibiotics in the waste killed off most of the natural microbes occurring in the water column and on the seafloor. That was all the specifics I received at the time. In the ten years since then I have thought about this off and on, but I was unable to uncover any further information. In January, I was searching for an article on a wholly different topic and finally stumbled across a scientific paper that discusses the site and the affects on bacteria at the site. This paper referenced a book, Ocean Dumping of Industrial Waste from 1978 (ed. Ketchum et al.) that I easily and cheaply bought from Amazon.

In January of 1972 the Environmental Protection Agency established an industrial wastes ocean dumpsite off Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Dumpsite, PRD). PDR exists above the Puerto Rico trench in 6000m of water, 42 miles north of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Merck Sharp and Dohme Quimica de Puerto Rico, Inc. both located on the island, pushed for the establishment of the dumpsite.

Puerto Rico was and is a center for pharmaceutical manufacturing because of massive corporate tax breaks. Puerto Rico before 1976 possessed an extremely lenient tax policy. The U.S. Federal Tax Reform Act of 1976 essentially did away with corporate taxes on the island. In addittion, U.S. pharmaceutical companies enjoy a tax holiday corporate income and property taxes of 90% for the first five years of operation and 75% subsequently. Under this law, U.S. companies also receive 100% exemption from municipal taxes in Puerto Rico, and pharmaceutical companies qualify for a special 5% payroll deduction. Needless to say pharmaceutical manufacturing on the island is big.

PRD was intended only as temporary disposal to be disbanded once a new wastewater treatment plant became operational. Dumping at PDR was regulated under the Ocean Dumping Criteria of the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA). Under the MPRSA permits are required to dump and contingent on whether the “dumping will ‘unreasonably degrade or endanger’ human health, welfare, or the marine environment [MPRSA sections 102(a) and 103(a)]. The designation of recommended dumping sites by the EPA is based on

“Need for dumping, Effect of dumping on human health & welfare, Effect of dumping on fish, wildlife, shorelines. Effect of dumping on marine ecosystems, Persistence & permanence of effects, Effect of dumping particular volumes & concentrations, Effect on alternate uses of oceans (e.g., fishing), Designate sites beyond outer continental shelf (OCS) wherever feasible”.

Although speculative, it is reasonable that PDR was established because of the site’s distance from shore, well past the virtually nonexistent OCS of Puerto Rico, the perceived dilution effect on dumped wastes, and the economic push for site to dump at.

Delays in construction and shifting regulations delayed completion and PDR was used until the early 80’s. In 1978 seven industries continued to use PDR including: Bristol Alpha, Merck Sharp & Dohme Quimica, Pfizer, Schering, Cyanamid Agricultural, Upjohn Manufacturing, and Squibb Manufacturing. Prior to 1978, Abbott , Olefins, and Oxochem, also dumped at PDR. During 1973-1978 over 387,000 metric tones of wastes were dumped at PDR. That is the equivalent weight of 880 Boeing 747’s. Two barges, Liquid Waste 1 and Whitewater II, were employed to discharge the waste below water level. The barges left Arecibo daily. Barges were supposed to be towed beyond the outer continental shelf (OCS) at a distance 40 miles from shore at the PRD but several residents and fisherman stated “We know, because of the time they spend at sea and our observation of the fish catch, that they have been dumping their chemicals as soon as they leave the port.”

The material dumped was comprised mainly of a non-aqueous solution of the waste comprised of volatile organics, 70% which were butanol, and dimethyl aniline. Other dumped wastes included: benzene, toluene, and various other hydrocarbons, halocarbons, alcohols, esters, ketones, and nitrogen compounds. Some of these compounds are quite nasty. The MSDS for the dimethyl aniline reads

is a highly toxic substance, particularly to blood, kidneys and liver, and it can be fatal if inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the skin. Splashes can be readily absorbed through the skin and vapours can be absorbed into the blood stream. It can burn skin and eyes. The effects of DMA can also build up over time and it is a possible carcinogen.

From Wikipedia

Benzene exposure has serious health effects. Breathing high levels of benzene can result in death, while low levels can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness. Eating or drinking foods containing high levels of benzene can cause vomiting, irritation of the stomach, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions, and death…Benzene damages the bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and depress the immune system, increasing the chance of infection..Animal studies have shown low birth weights, delayed bone formation, and bone marrow damage when pregnant animals breathed benzene…The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) classifies benzene as a human carcinogen. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, a potentially fatal cancer of the blood-forming organs. In particular, Acute myeloid leukemia or acute non-lymphocytic leukaemia (AML & ANLL) may be caused by benzene.

The chemical and biological impacts to the marine ecosystem were investigated (detailed in Ketchum et al). Dimethyl aniline persisted in high concentrations at PDR for up to three days whereas benzene and toluene went to background levels in 12 hours. No difference was seen in phytoplankton concentrations between control sites and the PDR. However, laboratory experiments indicated wastes in concentration of 0.14% decreased phytoplankton growth by 76%. Another study demonstrated that pharmaceutical waste at a level of <1% was acutely toxic with 100% of both adult and juvenile amphipods dying after 2 days at 1%. Although higher concentrations, 4%, were needed, 100% mortality was always reached by 4 days in grass shrimp, hydromedusae, etc. Peele et al. (1981) found "demonstrable changes in the marine microbial community in the region used for waste disposal." These changes included an increased in activity and numbers of marine bacteria radically different than the natural occurring bacteria outside the PDR. Grimes et al. (1984) found

Pseudomonas spp., reported to be common in these waters a decade earlier, were virtually absent from all samples examined during a three year study involving 9 cruises. Staphylococcus spp. were also found in water samples collected within the dumpsite. Using cultures isolated from surface water samples collected at the dumpsite, laboratory experiments confirmed that pharmaceutical waste can enrich for Vibrio spp.. in preference to Pseudomonas spp., with growth of the strains proportional to the amount of waste added.

I have not been able to confirm this but information I gathered online also suggests that the waste was also blamed for massive fish kills in Puerto Rico.

Pharmaceutical waste is one of myriad things we as a society have dumped into the world’s oceans. Industrial and medical waste, dredge spoils, sewage sludge, ocean mining waste, high-level and low-level radioactive waste, munitions, ships, tires, and much more all have been disposed of at sea.

Dr. M (1749 Posts)

Craig McClain is the Executive Director of the Lousiana University Marine Consortium. He has conducted deep-sea research for 20 years and published over 50 papers in the area. He has participated in and led dozens of oceanographic expeditions taken him to the Antarctic and the most remote regions of the Pacific and Atlantic. Craig’s research focuses on how energy drives the biology of marine invertebrates from individuals to ecosystems, specifically, seeking to uncover how organisms are adapted to different levels of carbon availability, i.e. food, and how this determines the kinds and number of species in different parts of the oceans. Craig’s research has been featured on National Public Radio, Discovery Channel, Fox News, National Geographic and ABC News. In addition to his scientific research, Craig also advocates the need for scientists to connect with the public and is the founder and chief editor of the acclaimed Deep-Sea News (http://deepseanews.com/), a popular ocean-themed blog that has won numerous awards. His writing has been featured in Cosmos, Science Illustrated, American Scientist, Wired, Mental Floss, and the Open Lab: The Best Science Writing on the Web.

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10 comments on “Dumping Pharmaceutical Waste In The Deep Sea
  1. I’d like to see a study of the effects of bioacummulation in top predators around PRD. Also, tissue levels of the compounds in local fishermen and their families.

    My memory is a bit foggy but I think when they were using a section of Puerto Rico as a bombing range, researchers found higher concentrations of whatever chemicals are in bombs in the tissue ssamples of the local Vieques (sp?) people as compared to PR population as a whole.

  2. Has anyone heard the case of pharmaceuticals in nearshore waters of the southeast US, and its bioaccumulation in dolphins? I believe the coastal waters tested positive for Xanax and caffeine, among other things. It was then shown that fish reaction time to predators was higher than normal, i.e. they were slow to react.

  3. lol, maybe the dolphins were depressed because all their friends were getting caught in seines… or maybe because they Navy keeps yelling at them with their sonar…

  4. The legacy of our parents. Lovely. Unfortunately this kind of stuff will NEVER break out into the news unless the public takes drastic measures. And do you really think people care that much about the ocean? (Other than their polluted beaches)

  5. @y: Well, I am a member of the media, and I’d love to break this into the public consciousness. What we need is a news hook though–is there dumping currently going on? That’s the kind of stuff that gets your editor’s heart racing. If anyone knows of such a site, let me know at [email protected].

    Also, is Puerto Rico still a hub of pharma production?

  6. Alexis,
    Yes PR is still a hub. http://www.piapr.com/

    Dumping of pharm waste ended in the early 80’s. Indeed tougher restrictions under the London Dumping Convention ended most dumping of all kinds. Although, in many regions treated sewage is still carted far offshore by pipes (e.g. Boston).

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