If asked to describe large-scale disasters occurring recently, many of us would probably name the 2015 Nepalese earthquake that killed 9,000 people or Hurricane Matthew’s path of death and destruction through Haiti and the surrounding region in September/October 2016. In 2015, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) reported 346 disasters, resulting in more than 22,000 deaths worldwide and more than $66 billion (US) in economic losses.
Growing up, I was acutely aware of the effects of natural disasters, as my parents and both of my aunts were in the International Red Cross. My Aunt Hilary was deployed by the Red Cross to Morocco after the devastating 1960 Agadir earthquake, which killed more than a third of the residents in Agadir, Morocco, in less than 30 seconds. For me, disaster preparation and relief are terms that I heard discussed at home from a very young age, but how are disasters defined and what role does science play in their aftermath? This article will highlight how toxicology can assist in the post-disaster recovery process.
Natural vs. Environmental Disasters
UNISDR defines disaster as a sudden, calamitous event that causes a community or society to suffer exceptional levels of disruption or loss that exceed the ability of the community or society to cope using its own resources. A disaster is a multi-faceted event that may result from a “natural” or man-made event that escalates and overwhelms society on a local, national, or even global scale.
“Natural disaster” is defined as a natural hazard that escalates to a level that destroys human life, property, or the environment at a magnitude that overwhelms society’s ability to cope and respond. Examples of recent natural disasters include Hurricane Sandy in the US in 2012 and the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. In contrast, an “environmental or technological disaster” describes a calamitous event that occurs as a result of intentional or accidental damage to the natural environment due to human activity. Environmental disasters examples are the Elk River chemical spill in 2014 that left hundreds of thousands of West Virginia residents without drinking water and the more recent Aliso Canyon, California, natural gas well blowout that released 100,000 metric tons of methane over almost four months in 2015-2016, equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 500,000 cars.
The sequence of events leading to a disaster is described in Environmental Hazards: Assessing Risk and Reducing Disaster (Smith 2013). Once a disaster occurs, humans, and other living organisms residing in or around a disaster zone are at risk from illness or death resulting from loss of habitat; exposure to chemicals/radiological/biological substances present in water, food, or air; and/or the lack of medical services. Toxicologists can and should have a positive impact on disasters, helping society avoid, respond, and recover from natural and environmental disasters.
Toxicology’s Role in Researching and Responding to Disasters
SOT serves as a resource for the US Department of Interior’s Strategic Sciences Group (SSG). The SSG was created to provide the US Government with strategic scientific information and expertise during environmental crises. US Geological Survey (USGS) Staff Scientist Kris Ludwig, PhD, is part of SSG and liaises with SOT and other professional societies to provide the SSG with a quick and reliable assessment of disaster consequences, including intervention strategies. The SSG response approach has been applied with success to the Deepwater Horizon spill and Hurricane Sandy and demonstrates how a strategic approach to disaster response can rapidly avert and address environmental, social, and/or economic catastrophes.
For instance, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, toxicologists and environmental health scientists at the USGS began investigations to evaluate long-term contamination resulting from beach erosion and sediment turnover in New Jersey and New York coastal areas affected by Hurricane Sandy. USGS scientists analyzed bottom sediments, fish, and mussels from various coastal locations (collected before and after Hurricane Sandy) for the presence of numerous persistent organic pollutants (PCBs, PAHs) and trace elements, such as lead. This research, published in summer 2016 in a special issue of the Marine Pollution Bulletin, provides important insight into how a natural disaster can influence movement of contamination in the environment.
The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) Disaster Research Response Program (DR2) was created in 2013 with the goal of creating a disaster research system. SOT Member Aubrey K. Miller, MD, MPH, is the DR2 program lead at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and has been instrumental in establishing DR2 into a critical “go-to” resource for disaster researchers and responders, including links to on-line tools. DR2 continues to advance disaster research, and a session titled “Disaster Research Response and the EHS community” is planned as part of the NIEHS Environmental Health Science FEST, December 5‒8, 2016, in Durham, North Carolina.
As members of SOT, we are committed to studying, preventing, and ameliorating harm posed by chemical, physical, or biological agents, including those associated with disasters. Since 1900, 22,000 disasters have occurred around the world. In light of this statistic, it appears that there will always be disasters; however, we have the power to prepare for them as well as direct appropriate disaster response and recovery measures. The disaster-related investigations and programs featured in this article demonstrate ways in which toxicology is put into practice to protect each of us from the horrors of disaster.