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Disasters and Environmental Health

Road damage caused by flooding
Left Hand Canyon, Colorado, flood sediments During their response to disasters, USGS scientists have made numerous observations about disaster processes and disaster impacts on both natural and built environments. While sampling the sediments deposited by the September 2013 Colorado floods, the scientists observed that roads and houses built on the outside bends of river meanders were particularly vulnerable to flood damages (upper photo; Left Hand Canyon highway damage; Photo Credit: Geoffrey Plumlee, USGS). The copious rocks carried by the floodwaters pulverized and diluted non-floatable materials from the built environment (lower photo; Left Hand Canyon flood sediments; Photo Credit: Geoffrey Plumlee, USGS).

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists are focusing on new efforts to help protect human and environmental health during disasters. Two papers published recently summarize important characteristics of materials released into the environment by natural and anthropogenic disasters, such as volcanic ash, building collapse dusts and debris, flood sediments, flood waters, wildfire ash and debris, mine tailings, and mineral processing solutions. These papers are based in part on the scientists’ own environmental disaster response work spanning more than a decade, starting with the World Trade Center in 2001. Using their experience with specific disasters, the papers:

  • Describe the important physical, chemical, and microbial characteristics of disaster materials,
  • Show how earth science methods can help differentiate the many sources for the materials, as well as help monitor and map dispersal of the materials in the environment,
  • Summarize how the materials are modified by environmental processes―sometimes to more toxic forms,
  • Discuss key characteristics of disaster materials that influence their toxicity to exposed people and ecosystems,
  • Summarize what is known about short- and long-term health impacts that clearly resulted from exposures to the disaster materials,
  • Provide information about disaster materials that is pertinent for post-disaster restoration and disposal of materials during cleanup, and
  • Discuss how disasters can cause persisting shifts from pre-disaster environmental baseline conditions.

Using lessons learned from disaster responses, USGS scientists have also worked with USGS hazards experts to help anticipate environmental health implications of disaster scenarios such as the recent Science Application for Risk Reduction (SAFRR) Project "California Tsunami Scenario." The scenario work has helped experts in hazards, disaster response/preparedness/restoration, economics, public health, and engineering better anticipate and plan for environmental and related health impacts from these plausible future disasters, thereby enhancing disaster resilience.

The environmental disaster response study was supported by the USGS Mineral Resources Program. Disaster scenario study was supported primarily by the USGS Science Application for Risk Reduction (SAFRR) Project, with secondary support from the Mineral Resources Program.


The environmental and medical geochemistry of potentially hazardous materials produced by disasters (Section 11.7): Treatise on Geochemistry (Second Edition): Oxford, Elsevier, 2014, p. 257-304

Environmental and medical geochemistry in urban disaster response and preparedness: Elements, 2012, v. 8, no. 6, p. 451-457, doi:10.2113/gselements.8.6.451.

When water, gravity and geology collide--Firsthand observations of the impacts of the 2013 Colorado floods: Earth, v. 59, January 21, 2014, p. 29-34.

Potential environmental and environmental-health implications of the safrr tsunami scenario in California (Chapter F), in The SAFRR (Science Application For Risk Reduction) Tsunami Scenario: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2013-1170-F, 2014, p. 34.

More Information

This article was featured as an article in the USGS GeoHealth Newsletter, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2014

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