Dibromochloropropane, or DBCP, is a pesticide introduced by the Dow Chemical Company and Shell Development Company in 1955 in order to control nematodes, or root worms, at the base of pineapple plants. However, by 1984, when DBCP was finally phased out in Hawai`i, it would cause damage to more than just nematodes. Although DBCP was initially thought to dissolve in soil, it instead percolated into the groundwater, and contaminated the drinking water supply in Hawai`i [2;5]. DBCP is in the persistent organic pollutants class of pesticides, which remain in the environment for long periods of time and can be harmful to human health . By 1977, DBCP was known to be harmful, and was banned in California after it was discovered to cause cancers in test animals, and that workers exposed to DBCP were experiencing infertility . DBCP has also been linked to kidney and liver damage, infertility and potentially cancer .
Since 1979, DBCP has been found in groundwater in Arizona, California, Maryland, South Carolina and Hawai`i . As a result, the EPA in May 1979 asked all of these states to test their water supplies and phase out the use of DBCP in the next 2 years . The owners of pineapple plantations in Hawai`i asked the EPA to make an exception and allow them to keep using DBCP. An agreement signed on March 6, 1981 allowed Hawai`i pineapple plantations to continue to used DBCP even when it was banned in every other state [3;4;5]. EPA Administrator Douglas Costle agreed to this exception as he believed the economic benefit to the Hawaiian pineapple growers exceeded the risks to the Hawaiian people . Unfortunately, this is part of a larger pattern of injustice, where the land and people of Hawai`i are treated differently than those on the mainland, where profits are put over people. Hawai`i also has ten times as much pesticides and herbicides per square mile than any other state .
As a condition of the agreement, the state had to conduct extensive water testing. Workers were also now required to wear full body protective gear when in the pineapple fields . In September, 1982, DBCP was found in Mililani well at a concentration of 97 nanograms per liter .
After a second round of testing required by the EPA, 8 wells were found to be contaminated, creating a water crisis in Hawai`i . In Oahu, ten water wells were closed by the Hawai`i State Department of Health because of DBCP contamination in 1982 and 1983, with contamination ranging from 0.26 ppb to 2.23 ppb . The Del Monte Kunia Well on Oahu had concentrations from 500 to 1100 nanograms per liter . Hawaii’s most important aquifer, the Pearl Harbor Aquifer, also showed detectable levels of DBCP, a major concern as Honolulu’s main supplier of drinking water . The Department of Health soon set a maximum contaminant standard of 0.02 ppb, or 20 nanograms per liter .
In January, 1985, the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported that DBCP had been found in milk, and that state officials, consultants from the University of Hawaii and the pineapple industry had made attempts to suppress this discovery  - another stark example of putting profits over people. In addition, only a year after the Maliko spring was determined to be contaminated, the people who used the water were finally informed . David Williams, the agricultural researcher for ML&P, who was responsible for the testing, said the residents weren’t informed because “We can’t go around looking for every backwoods person who doesn’t know what they are talking about. I tell you nobody drinks that water” . Williams used coded racist terms, such as “backwoods person,” to excuse his decisions.
Also in January 1985, the EPA ordered ML&P to stop the use of DBCP within the next 2 years, and added the requirement that any use of DBCP would need to be approved by a two member panel (of an EPA and state representative). In February, ML&P asked for approval to use DBCP on 2100 acres, which would not only use up ML&P’s remaining stocks of DBCP, but also all the remaining DBCP on the mainland . ML&P argued that this was the most environmentally safe way to dispose of DBCP, while local residents argued that this was yet another example of using Hawai`i as a dumping ground for the mainland . In mid-April, ML&P’s request was denied, and in June, 1987, ML&P shipped out its last stocks of DBCP to be disposed.
Despite DBCP use ending at the end of 1984, DBCP was found in a well at Napili in 1992 at a concentration of 100 parts per trillion, and later at 360 parts per trillion – ten times the state maximum . As a result, Maui County filed a lawsuit against the manufacturers of DBCP: Shell, Dow, Occidental, Amvac and Brewer Environmental Industry Incorporated .
The Honolulu Board of Water Supply ended up spending $9 million to remediate the DBCP contaminated wells in Kunia and Waipahu . Recent simulations show that it takes 14-32 years for DBCP to reach the water table, and that wells will likely not recover until after 2016 .
DBCP is still being found decades later. In 2003, testing of contaminated wells in Maui still showed high levels of DBCP at 230 ppt, about 190 ppt higher than the max contaminant level allowed in Hawai`i . Traces of DBCP was found in the Haiku water system in December 2019, but at levels below state safe drinking water standards . Traces of DBCP were also found in water samples in Waipahu, Ewa and Waianae in 2018, but also at levels below safe drinking water standards .
After completely banned in the US, DBCP was used as a pesticide in banana plantations in Central America, Ecuador, Africa and The Philippines where thousands of workers have reported reduced fertility and lower sperm counts.