Interdisciplinary Environmental-health Science Throughout Disaster Lifecycles

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Geoffrey S Plumlee, Suzette A Morman and Todd Michael Hoefen, U.S. Geological Survey, Denver, CO, United States
Potential human health effects from exposures to hazardous disaster materials and environmental contamination are common concerns following disasters. Using several examples from US Geological Survey environmental disaster responses (e.g., 2001 World Trade Center, mine tailings spills, 2005 Hurricane Katrina, 2007-2013 wildfires, 2011 Gulf oil spill, 2012 Hurricane Sandy, 2013 Colorado floods) and disaster scenarios (2011 ARkStorm, 2013 SAFRR tsunami) this presentation will illustrate the role for collaborative earth, environmental, and health science throughout disaster lifecycles. Pre-disaster environmental baseline measurements are needed to help understand environmental influences on pre-disaster health baselines, and to constrain the magnitude of a disaster’s impacts. During and following disasters, there is a need for interdisciplinary rapid-response and longer-term assessments that: sample and characterize the physical, chemical, and microbial makeup of complex materials generated by the disasters; fingerprint material sources; monitor, map, and model dispersal and evolution of disaster materials in the environment; help understand how the materials are modified by environmental processes; and, identify key characteristics and processes that influence the exposures and toxicity of disaster materials to humans and the living environment. This information helps emergency responders, public health experts, and cleanup managers: 1) identify short- and long-term exposures to disaster materials that may affect health; 2) prioritize areas for cleanup; and 3) develop appropriate disposal solutions or restoration uses for disaster materials. By integrating lessons learned from past disasters with geospatial information on vulnerable sources of natural or anthropogenic contaminants, the environmental health implications of looming disasters or disaster scenarios can be better anticipated, which helps enhance preparedness and resilience. Understanding economic costs of environmental cleanup and environmental-health impacts from disasters is an area of needed research. Throughout all disaster stages, effective communication between diverse scientific disciplines and stakeholder groups is both a necessity and a challenge.