“If only. Those must be the two saddest words in the world.” This quote by US writer Mercedes Lackey poignantly captures sentiments of disaster responders who make split-second response decisions in the face of incomplete information. This SOT historical highlights (HH) session detailed natural and manmade disasters experienced around the world over the past century: the Fukishima nuclear disaster, the World Trade Center disaster, the California wildfires of 2008, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the Deepwater Horizon gulf oil spill. With each disaster, first responders and humans residing in the disaster zone are exposed to agents that increase the likelihood of adverse health effects, such asthma, immunotoxicity, or cancer. Phrases such as Katrina cough, tsunami lung, and Ground Zero illness have worked their way into our language because of 21st century disasters.
Although disasters often occur because of natural events, humans influence the impact and sequelae of both natural and manmade disasters by choosing specific response measures. As an example, Jerold Last (University of California, Davis) spoke about the toxic respiratory effects of California wildfires posed by particulate matter, and contrasted this toxicity with the toxicity of chemicals in fire response formulations that are toxic to both humans and the environment (such as PFOS and PFOA). Aubrey Miller (National Institutes of Health [NIH]) described work that the NIH Disaster Research Response Program is undertaking to better prepare for disasters and avoid repeating mistakes associated with past disaster responses.
Penn State football coach Joe Paterno once said that the minute you think you’ve got it made, disaster is just around the corner. The work presented during this HH session demonstrates that toxicologists are indeed looking around the corner and are implementing tangible improvements in disaster preparation methods and policies.