Approximately 50 to 100 natural disasters occur annually in the United States alone. While severe thunderstorms account for many of these, less common occurrences such as hurricanes, wildfires, and earthquakes can also cause devastation to buildings and surrounding environments. In the moment, natural disasters can be a frightening and life-endangering event, but what about after it has passed? Unfortunately, cleanup and the path of returning to normalcy can prove to be just as dangerous. In order to mitigate potential harm to ourselves, loved ones, and colleagues, we must understand what dangers we may face after a natural disaster. It’s almost impossible to determine the probability of a specific hazard, which is why it’s imperative to examine various threats and hazards in which the likelihood may happen.
The cleanup process after a natural disaster can be prolonged and arduous. Structures that were built prior to the 1980s often were built with materials now considered hazardous to human health. Identifying any and all types of hazardous materials that can leave individuals at risk for illness should be outlined in a Disaster Management plan. Below is a list of dangerous toxins that workers, emergency managers, cleanup volunteers, and victims of natural disasters may come in contact with during and following a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or flood.
A naturally occurring element, lead is primarily toxic to children, harming child development that could result in severe behavioral problems, anemia, reduced IQ, hyperactivity, and delayed learning. Pregnant women may experience critical effects on the fetus and infant, as lead accumulates in the bones. It may be transferred to the fetus or baby when breastfeeding through the calcium found in this part of the body. Health defects include premature birth, increased risk for miscarriage, and damage to the infant’s kidneys, nervous system, and brain. Adults who are not pregnant can also face cardiovascular diseases, infertility issues for both men and women, and low kidney function.
Products containing lead:
- Drinking water
- Soil and dust
- Older homes and buildings
This carcinogen was frequently used before the 1980s when regulations surrounding the link of asbestos to mesothelioma began, forcing reduced asbestos manufacturing. As with lead exposure, asbestos is threatening when inhaled or ingested. Asbestos can become airborne when structures become damaged, leading to exposure among first responders, emergency workers, and volunteers. Any form of exposure to asbestos can cause a mesothelioma diagnosis. The microscopic asbestos fibers can stick to the lungs, heart, or internal lining of the stomach causing malignant tumors to form. Most often, individuals with this disease have a short prognosis due to how severe mesothelioma is to the body and the lack of successful treatment.
During and after a catastrophic event, it’s useful to check with Local Emergency Planning entities and the Toxic Release Inventory database to identify facilities located within the area damaged by the event that may have asbestos. Individuals can come into contact with asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) after a natural disaster in a variety of ways:
- Debris on the ground from buildings totally demolished by the catastrophic event itself
- Partially destroyed houses and buildings
- Adhesives, bonding and sealers
- Construction materials (vinyl floors, roofs, asphalt, tiles, shingles, siding, etc.)
- Fireproofing and fire-resistant products
Currently there are no statutory or regulatory provisions that stay the applicability of the National Emission Standard for Hazardous Air Pollutants for Asbestos (Asbestos NESHAP) as a result of a catastrophic event. It should be assumed that the building being recovered has ACMs present, and specific guidelines pertaining to the removal of this material should be followed.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
As a silent killer, carbon monoxide can become deadly within five minutes of exposure. Any device that burns fuel can produce this gas, which is colorless and odorless, but most dangerous when an individual is trapped and there is little to no ventilation. Portable generators are practical for post-storm damage; however, a 5kW generator can emit an equal amount of carbon monoxide as nearly 450 cars, making it highly lethal. A study conducted from 2005 to 2017 reported that over 900 people died from portable generators leaking carbon monoxide. Mild exposure can lead to general symptoms of fatigue, headaches, and nausea, while higher amounts cause migraines, accelerated heart rate, confusion, unconsciousness, coma, and cardiorespiratory failure.
Electrocution is another peril to avoid after a natural disaster. Electrical hazards pose risks through fallen or damaged power lines, standing water while operating or in close proximity to a power tool, or connecting generators to “electrical circuits without the approved automatic-interrupt devices.”
Protection and Prevention
Emergency managers and business continuity planners are typically well-versed in dealing with any hazards or potential health threats. Regardless, knowing about these specific toxins and safety precautions is a reminder that these situations can lead to serious consequences. It is important to realize that recovery workers and emergency response employees may be exposed to various health hazards in addition to the ones listed: biologic, radiologic, chemical, and physical. Once you have a list of hazards, you’ll need to figure out the specific action steps to take for each emergency. This can include anything from delegating staff to follow through with executing the emergency plan to having a list of supplies and equipment needed following a catastrophe.
Wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like respiratory masks, gloves, full-body suits, and boots is one way to protect yourself. The CDC offers a list to refer to when dealing with the management and aftermath of natural disasters. Personal and public preparedness, training, response tools and resources, and legal preparedness are some of the key examples that officials and those directly involved in these circumstances can rely on.
Planning ahead and comprehending all risks is an initiative that workers can take. Educational resources on the common building, disaster, and occupational health and safety concerns, as well as other resources for communities to learn more, can be beneficial for any natural disaster.