With Natural Disasters in the Headlines Almost Every Day. The Link Between the Two is Undeniable
By Cesar Collado
Growing up in the 70s, I remember very few natural disasters. As a matter of fact, few natural disasters occurred during my first 3 decades of life. Movies like “Earthquake” (1974), “Avalanche” (1978), and“When Time Ran Out” (1980 Volcano) provided my only frames of reference to the destruction and magnitude that such events could bring. These movies, of course, provided Hollywood’s version, with nature as the villain, and were closer to watching foreign matinee movies involving aliens or giant monsters than to the reality of actually living through such disasters.
The 1980s Mount St. Helens Volcano eruption was the first natural disaster I experienced through watching television footage of the action and fallout. Hurricane Andrew (1992) was the first Category 4-5 hurricane that could be viewed on television. Seeing the destruction as it played out allowed viewers to feel empathy for the victims. I also recall seeing California wild fires outside of the window of an airplane in 2003. Not to mention the fact that the US had not experienced war on US soil in the decades after Pearl Harbor. Not until the fateful events of September 11, 2001 was the first manmade catastrophe able to be witnessed by all.
During the past few years, the variety of catastrophic natural disasters have almost become regular “Modern Day Plagues” that have hit most of the US states and its territories. The environmental illness and health ramifications will be continuously felt for the foreseeable future.
When I bought my first home in 1997, I learned about the “100 Year Storm.” At the time, insurance statisticians predicted a major natural disaster at a 1% chance in any given year. In my opinion, though, Hurricane Katrina (2005) was the beginning of what seems to be the “100 Year” disaster concept. Since Katrina, it seems like there have been an onslaught of disasters occurring yearly and causing massive destruction, economic fallout, and an epidemic of environmental illness not seen before this time period. Worth mentioning is also the fact that most physicians currently in practice had their training prior to this time of frequent natural disasters.
The following quote sums up the scarcity of trained medical professionals who even consider the events of nature as they relate to increased illness and disease in impacted areas:
“The paucity of specialists trained in environmental medicine (i.e., occupational medicine and other preventive medicine specialties and subspecialties), coupled with the lack of adequate general medical education on how to prevent, diagnose, refer, or treat patients exposed to hazardous substances in the environment, contributes to lost opportunities for primary prevention or early intervention to mitigate or minimize the environmentally-related disease burden.” 1.
As you can see in the image to the left, the events of 2017 capture the catastrophic impact and costs associated with the strength of Mother Nature. These weather events caused great destruction in many ways to entire communities. In many cases, cities were leveled leaving inhabitants homeless in the midst of danger and financial uncertainty. Most homeowners did not have adequate insurance coverage, because the “100 Year Storm” was not likely to occur. Looking at differences in the rise of “disaster-based” coverage from just 2017 and 2018, I can speculate that that same reliance on the 1% probability is no longer the norm.
The Hazards Inherent to Hurricanes and Flooding Negatively Impact Human Health
The destruction caused by natural disasters can release many toxic chemicals and natural substances into the air and water. There are a number of processes that act on debris from disasters. There is dispersion, dilution, pulverization, oxidation and reduction reactions, condensation, evaporation and volatilization, photolysis, microbial degradation and sediment sequestration. These are just some of the potential exposures that impact humans negatively. 2. Chemical hazards contaminate water and air and can harm habitants and rescuers. Slow-dose exposure over the period of time during the fixing stage or a massive exposure can lead to individuals reaching their “toxic load” all at once. When this occurs, the body becomes hypersensitive to allergens, mold, and chemicals. This can be debilitating and lead to a lifetime of health problems. (You can read more about “Toxic Load” HERE.)
When hurricanes occur, the storm is just the beginning and habitants are faced with several waves of destruction. This includes reconstruction, financial, health, and emotional concerns that peak at various stages. You can read about the “The Five Stages of Destruction” HERE.
While the damage of hurricanes is well known, the fallout from flooding is a more common pain-point in communities. Sadly, though the discussion on short- and long-term health effects seems to be scarce. Flooding occurs when prolonged rain fall exceeds the capacity of what the ground and drainage can handle. It does not take much for a city to flood. One example that I experienced was the catastrophic flooding in Atlanta in 2009. During this event, approximately 20 inches of rainfall occurred in a 24-hour period. Over 3 days, flooding at its peak happened at the Sweetwater Creek near Austell, Georgia. The water levels were 20 feet above flood lines. The 3- day storm caused $500 M in damage.3.
The environmental risk of this type of flooding is the same as a hurricane when it comes to microbial contamination. Contaminated water spreads bacteria. The combination of flood waters and organic and inorganic materials leads to mold overgrowth. Remediation in these events becomes critical; however, local help is limited, leaving homeowners in the unenviable, difficult position of deciding how to fix the situation. In many cases, proper remediation does not occur leaving mold health risks.
Forest fires have been common for many years in the drier western United States. They seem to be ongoing challenges in states like California, where drought conditions have been common over the past 2 decades. Forest fire smoke and haze contains particulate matter. These particulates contain a mixture of microscopic solids and liquid droplets suspended in the air. Acids, organic chemicals, metals, soil and dust particles, and fragments of pollen or mold spores are all abundantly present. Because the particle size can be as small as 2.5 microns, they can penetrate deeply into sinus and lung tissues to cause illness, and, in the worst situations, may even get into the blood circulation.
Long-term exposure to pollutants increases the risk of chronic sinusitis, respiratory disease (asthma), and heart and lung diseases including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It can also accelerate the process of the narrowing and hardening of the arteries known as atherosclerosis, the main cause of heart attacks and strokes.4. Finally, you cannot ignore mold illness due to water-damaged homes that are often soaked while being defended by firefighters
Hazards of Volcanic Ash
A multitude of dangerous particulates and gases, such as aerosols, are carried in volcanic ash. Some of these includeCarbon dioxide, Sulfates (sulfur dioxide), Hydrochloric acid, and Hydrofluoric acid.
Volcanic ash contaminates the biosphere through inhalation by humans and animals, and can affect crops growing in an area with large amounts of ash. Volcanic ash can also contaminate the water supply.
When inhaled, ash is deposited in air passages and sinus and lung cells.Respiratory disease and eye damage are common. Inhalation can also lead to Silicosis. Silicosis is a disease resulting in lung impairment and scarring from exposure to particles of free crystalline silica. Minerals that are associated with silicosis include quartz, cristobalite, and tridymite, all potentially present in volcanic ash. This year Hawaii was hit by both a Volcano eruption and a hurricane. Episodic sickness has recently been observed in residents and tourists in Hawaii who got too close to the volcanic activity during hikes or helicopter tours.5.
Blizzards aren’t just heavy snow storms. They are classified by large amounts of snow, winds (35 mph or higher) and visibility of less than 1/4 mile. These conditions must also be present for three hours or more, but they can go on for weeks. Blizzards don’t just pose a danger to the health of people, they also threaten the environment, including the health of local plants and animals.
Blizzards have the potential to cause significant damage to entire forests, which then release carbon during decay. The excess carbon causes an imbalance in the local ecosystem, which impacts other plants and wildlife. When other plants and flora are killed during a blizzard, their lack of availability also impacts the food supply for local animals and wildlife. They also cause water damage due to freezing and breakage of water pipes. When pipes break, the same risks of flooding and mold and fungal damage are present. Because of the magnitude of snow, the weather cycle is disrupted, resulting inheavy accumulation of water vapor in the atmosphere. That can lead to greater rainfall throughout the rest of the year, including heavy storms. Those storms can then raise water levels and impact plant and animal populations.6.
Things to Consider:
- All of these Natural Disasters have been experienced by readers or likely someone they know;
- Medical training for environmental illness is inadequate given that the majority of physicians in the US were trained prior to this overabundance of disasters across the US. The impact on an individual’s emotional state cannot be ignored, and diseases like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other psychological ailments are very real.The rise in psychological trauma post-impact from disasters like Hurricane Katrina and others are now being researched. (You can read about “The Debilitating Path of Mold Illness” HERE)
- The burden of seeking the right type of medical help still falls on the victims of these disasters. Proactively seeking physicians who treat environmental illness is becoming a requirement throughout many areas of the country due to the increasing volume and magnitude of natural disasters.
What You Can Do to Be Prepared:
- Safety gear like N95 Masks should be maintained along with other emergency requirements often suggested by local officials prior to these events. Stores often run out prior to predicted disasters. Masks and gloves for everyone in the household can be invaluable.
- A HEPA Air Purifier or Air Scrubber can keep your home air safe to breathe and can mitigate the risk of illness.
- EC3 Environmental Products can help maintain what space you live in from mold and fungus. EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate, EC3 Laundry Additive, EC3 Candles, and Citridrops Dietary Supplement with a nasal rinse system can all help in this process, along with an EC3 fogger. Maintaining your living space will mitigate the risk of breathing contaminated air in your home.
- Sinus Defense and CellTropin will help your body battle allergens and pathogens and support your hormonal systems to keep you healthy during an environmental crisis.
- Kimberly S. Gehle, MD, MPH et. al. “Integrating Environmental Health into Medical Education”, Am Journal of Preventive Med 2011;41(4S3): S296 –S301
- Knap, Anthony, “Environmental exposures due to natural disasters”, Reviews on Environmental Health, 2016-03-16
- Atlanta Floods 5th Anniversary, September 15-22, 2009, National Weather Service, September 2014
- Raymond, Vanessa, “How Smoke from Forest Fires Affects Your Health”, July 31, 2018, Rightasrain.uwmedicine.org.
- Williams, Gretchen, “Volcanic Ash: More Than Just A Science Project.” https://serc.carleton.edu
- Magher, Maria, “Do Blizzards affect the environment?”, https://education.seattlepi.com/blizzards-affect-environment-6450.html