Ocean Dumping – A Summary of Studies

Ocean Dumping – A Summary of 12 Studies Conducted between 1970 and 2001

By Jerry Botana

The dumping of industrial, nuclear and other waste into oceans was legal until the early 1970’s when it became regulated; however, dumping still occurs illegally everywhere.  Governments world-wide were urged by the 1972 Stockholm Conference to control the dumping of waste in their oceans by implementing new laws. The United Nations met in London after this recommendation to begin the Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter which was implemented in 1975. The International Maritime Organization was given responsibility for this convention and a Protocol was finally adopted in 1996, a major step in the regulation of ocean dumping.

The most toxic waste material dumped into the ocean includes dredged material, industrial waste, sewage sludge, and radioactive waste. Dredging contributes about 80% of all waste dumped into the ocean, adding up to several million tons of material dumped each year. About 10% of all dredged material is polluted with heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, and chromium, hydrocarbons such as heavy oils, nutrients including phosphorous and nitrogen, and organochlorines from pesticides. Waterways and, therefore, silt and sand accumulate these toxins from land runoff, shipping practices, industrial and community waste, and other sources.  This sludge is then dumped in the littoral zone of each country’s ocean coastline.  In some areas, like the so called “vanishing point” off the coast of New Jersey, in the United States, such toxic waste dumping has been concentrated into a very small geographic area over an extended period of time. 

In the 1970s, 17 million tons of industrial waste was legally dumped into the ocean by just the United States.   In the 1980’s, even after the Stockholm Conference, 8 million tons were dumped bincluding acids, alkaline waste, scrap metals, waste from fish processing, flue desulphurization, sludge, and coal ash.

If sludge from the treatment of sewage is not contaminated by oils, organic chemicals and metals, it can be recycled as fertilizer for crops but it is cheaper for treatment centers to dump this material into the ocean, particularly if it is chemically contaminated. The UN policy is that properly treated sludge from cities does not contain enough contaminants to be a significant cause of eutrophication (an increase in chemical nutrients—typically compounds containing nitrogen or phosphorus—in an ecosystem) or to pose any risk to humans if dumped into the ocean, however, the UN policy was based solely on an examination of the immediate toxic effects on the food chain and did not take into account how the marine biome will assimilate and be affected by this toxicity over time.  The peak of sewage dumping was 18 million tons in 1980, a number that was reduced to 12 million tons in the 1990s.

Radioactive Waste

Radioactive waste is also dumped in the oceans and usually comes from the nuclear power process, medical use of radioisotopes, research use of radioisotopes and industrial uses. The difference between industrial waste and nuclear waste is that nuclear waste usually remains radioactive for decades. The protocol for disposing of nuclear waste involves special treatment by keeping it in concrete drums so that it doesn’t spread when it hits the ocean floor however, poor containers and illegal dumping is estimated to be more than 45% of all radioactive waste. 

Surprisingly, nuclear power plants produce by far the largest amount of radioactive waste but contribute almost nothing to the illegal (after the Stockholm Conference) ocean dumping.  This is because the nuclear power industry is so closely regulated and accountable for its waste storage.  Off the coast of southern Africa and in the Indian Ocean, is the greatest accumulation of nuclear wastes.

The dumping of radioactive material has reached a total of about 84,000 terabecquerels (TBq), a unit of radioactivity equal to 1012 atomic disintegrations per second or 27.027 curies. Curie (Ci) is a unit of radioactivity. One curie was originally defined as the radioactivity of one gram of pure radium.  The high point of nuclear waste dumping was in 1954 and 1962, but this nuclear waste only accounts for 1% of the total TBq that has been dumped in the ocean. The concentration of radioactive waste in the concrete drums varies as does the ability of the drums to hold it.  To date, it is estimated that the equivalent of about 227 million grams (about 500,000 pounds) of pure radium has been dumped on the ocean floor.

Until it was banned, ocean dumping of radioactive waste was considered a safe and inexpensive way to get rid of tons of such materials.  It is estimated that the 1960’s and early 1970’s era nuclear power plants in New Jersey (like Oyster Creek – which is located just 21 miles from the Barnegat Lighthouse) and 12 other nuclear power plants located in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York have dumped more than 100,000 pounds of radioactive material into the ocean off the New Jersey coast.

Although some claim the risk to human health is small, the long-term affects of nuclear dumping are not known, and some estimate up to 1,000 deaths in the next 10,000 years as a result of just the evaporated nuclear waste. 

By contrast, biologists have estimated that the ocean’s biome has been and will continue to be permanently damaged by the exposure to radioactive material.  Large scale and rapid genetic mutations are known to occur as dosage levels of radiation increase.  Plant, animal and micro-organisms in the immediate vicinity of leaking radioactive waste will experience the greatest and most radical mutations between successive generations.  However, test show that even long term exposure to diluted radioactive wastes will create accelerated mutations and adaptations.

The Problems with Ocean Dumping

Although policies on ocean dumping in the recent past took an “out of sight- out of mind” approach, it is now known that accumulation of waste in the ocean is detrimental to marine and human health. Another unwanted effect is eutrophication. A biological process where dissolved nutrients cause oxygen-depleting bacteria and plants to proliferate creating a hypoxic, or oxygen poor, environment that kills marine life. In addition to eutrophication, ocean dumping can destroy entire habitats and ecosystems when excess sediment builds up and toxins are released. Although ocean dumping is now managed to some degree and dumping in critical habitats and at critical times is regulated, toxins are still spread by ocean currents. Alternatives to ocean dumping include recycling, producing less wasteful products, saving energy and changing the dangerous material into more benign waste.

According to the United Nations Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Pollution , the amount of ocean dumping actually brings in less pollution than maritime transportation, atmospheric pollution, and land based pollution like run-off. However, when waste is dumped it is often close to the coast and very concentrated as is the case off the coast of New Jersey.

Waste dumped into the ocean is categorized into the black list, the gray list, and the white list. On the black list are organohalogen compounds, mercury compounds and pure mercury, cadmium compounds and pure cadmium, any type of plastic, crude oil and oil products, refined petroleum and residue, highly radioactive waste, any material made for biological or chemical warfare.

The gray list includes water highly contaminated with arsenic, copper, lead, zinc, organosilicon compounds, any type of cyanide, flouride, pesticides, pesticide by-products, acids and bases, beryllium, chromium, nickel and nickel compounds, vanadium, scrap metal, containers, bulky wastes, lower level radioactive material and any material that will affect the ecosystem due to the amount in which it is dumped.

The white list includes all other materials not mentioned on the other two lists. The white list was developed to ensure that materials on this list are safe and will not be dumped on vulnerable areas such as coral reefs.

In 1995, a Global Waste Survey and the National Waste Management Profiles inventoried waste dumped worldwide to determine what countries were dumping waste and how much was going into the ocean. Countries that exceeded an acceptable level would then be assisted in the development of a workable plan to dispose of their waste.

The impact of a global ban on ocean dumping of industrial waste was determined in the Global Waste Survey Final Report the same year. In addition to giving the impact for every nation, the report also concluded that the unregulated disposal of waste, pollution of water, and buildup of materials in the ocean were serious problems for a multitude of countries. The report also concluded that dumping industrial waste anywhere in the ocean is like dumping it anywhere on land. The dumping of industrial waste had reached unacceptable levels in some regions, particularly in developing countries that lacked the resources to dispose of their waste properly.

The ocean is the basin that catches almost all the water in the world. Eventually, water evaporates from the ocean, leaves the salt behind, and becomes rainfall over land. Water from melted snow ends up in rivers, which flows through estuaries and meets up with saltwater.  River deltas and canyons that cut into the continental shelf – like the Hudson Canyon and the Mississippi Cone – create natural channels and funnels that direct concentrated waste into relatively small geographic areas where it accumulates into highly concentrated areas of fertilizers, pesticides, oil, human and animal wastes, industrial chemicals and radioactive materials.  For instance, feedlots in the United States exceed the amount of human waste with more than 500 millions tons of manure each year – about half of which eventually reaches the ocean basin.

Not only does the waste flow into the ocean, but it also encourages algal blooms to clog up the waterways, causing meadows of seagrass, kelp beds and entire ecosystems to die. A zone without any life remaining is referred to as a dead zone and can be the size of entire states, like in coastal zones of Texas and Louisiana and north-east of Puerto Rico and the Turks and Caicos Islands.  All major bays and estuaries now have dead zones from pollution run-off. Often, pollutants like mercury, PCBs and pesticides are found in seafood meant for the dinner table and cause birth defects, cancer and neurological problems—especially in infants.

One of the most dangerous forms of dumping is of animal and human bodies.  The decomposition of these bodies creates a natural breeding ground for bacteria and micro-organisms that are known to mutate into more aggressive and deadly forms with particular toxicity to the animals or humans that they fed on.  Of the mid-Atlantic coast of the United States was a common dumping zone for animals – particularly horses and human bodies up until the early 1900’s.  Today, the most common areas for human body dumping is in India in which their religious beliefs advocate burial in water.  The results of this dumping may be seen in the rise in extremely drug resistant strains of leprosy, dengue fever and Necrotizing Fasciitis bacteria.

One of the largest deep ocean dead zones is in the area between Bermuda and the Bahamas.  This area was a rich and productive fishing ground in the 1700’s and early 1800’s but by the early 20th Century, it was no longer productive and by the mid-1900’s, it was virtually lifeless below 200 feet of depth.  This loss of all life seems to have coincided with massive ocean dumping along the New Jersey and Carolina coasts.


Water recreation is another aspect of human life compromised by marine pollution from human activities like roads, shopping areas, and development in general.  Swimming is becoming unsafe, as over 12,000 beaches in the United States have been quarantined due to contamination from pollutants. Developed areas like parking lots enable runoff to occur at a much higher volume than a naturally absorbent field. Even simply driving a car or making a house warm can leak 28 million gallons of oil into lakes, streams and rivers. The hunt for petroleum through offshore gas and oil drilling leaks extremely dangerous toxins into the ocean and luckily is one aspect of pollution that has been halted by environmental laws.

Environmental Laws

In addition to the lack of underwater national parks, there is no universal law like the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act to protect the United States ocean territory. Instead, there are many different laws like the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act , which only apply to certain aspects of overfishing and are relatively ineffective. The act developed in the 1970’s is not based on scientific findings and is regulated instead by the regional fisheries council. In 2000, the Oceans Act  was implemented as a way to create a policy similar to the nationwide laws protecting natural resources on land. However, this act still needs further development and, like many of the conservation laws that exist at this time, it needs to be enforced.

 The total effects of ocean dumping will not be known for years but most scientists agree that, like global warming, we have passed the tipping point and the worst is yet to come.

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