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Environment, Community Health After Disasters

Dr. Maureen Y. Lichtveld,
Professor and Chair,
Freeport McMoRan Chair of Environmental Policy,
Tulane University


The health of the ecosystem and that of communities, especially those living in disaster-prone areas such as coastlines, are inextricably linked; yet, in the aftermath of natural or manmade disasters, efforts to assess and investments to restore local ecosystems and efforts focused on human health are often disconnected. Disasters, both natural and technological, are an illustrative challenge for both “systems” that demonstrate the urgency to join forces because of the adverse effects on the environment and communities alike.

Unlike technological disasters, the more visible human impact of natural disasters, e.g., hurricanes, elicits compassion and immediate response, resulting in first aid, shelter and evacuation assistance. However, attention to the ecosystem consequences is, in the case of natural disasters, delayed.

In contrast, technological disasters, e.g., oil spills not accompanied by easily noticeable immediate adverse human health impacts, tend to lead to addressing the ecosystem impact. For example, within 2.5 years post-Deepwater Horizon (DWH), approximately 4.1 sq. km of Louisiana’s wetlands were lost at an erosion rate of 1.54 m per year greater than that of reference (unoiled) islands. In response to this finding and to fisheries damage, unprecedented resources targeted local ecosystem restoration and research.

From a human health perspective, environmental epidemiological studies examined the impact of chemical and nonchemical stressors after the 2010 DWH oil spill. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) spearheaded the Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study (GuLF STUDY), examining a prospective cohort of adults (32,608) who participated in oil spill response and cleanup work, or who were trained but not hired, to determine both short- and long-term health effects. Early assessments focused on respiratory effects and mental health service utilization among participants.

Four research consortia were funded by NIEHS as academic-community partnerships to identify potential health effects from the DWH oil spill and examine factors that contribute to individual and community resilience. For example, among the research consortia, the Gulf Resilience on Women’s Health (GROWH), www.gulfcoastenvironmentalhealth.com, conducted exposure assessments in more than 1,600 pregnant and reproductive-age women. Using locally derived risk assessment data, the GROWH team concluded that seafood from the Gulf of Mexico is safe to eat, while one species of imported seafood is contaminated at levels of potential public health concern. As an example of a nonchemical stressor, financial loss was reported by the largest cohort of GROWH pregnant and reproductive-age women as the most significant negative effect of the DWH oil spill.

Unlike ecosystem studies that can commence immediately after a disaster, the delay (often months to years) in examining the human health consequences of such events confronts environmental public health scientists with a wide array of challenges, from study design to community trust. Specifically, the failure to invest in establishing baseline measures of exposure prior to and in the immediate aftermath of large chemical releases inhibits effective ascertainment of the relationship between exposure to the contaminants of concern and potential adverse health outcomes. Beyond hampering community protective actions, this inability results in a failure to address community concerns and consequently leads to community distrust.

Environmental monitoring devices, especially those available for general public use, can play a key role in early detection and promote risk communication. These kits use smartphone applications and include air and water monitoring.

While communities are concerned about the impact on the environment, e.g., on fisheries following the DWH spill, they are ultimately more fearful about the health consequences, especially for children. Investing in transdisciplinary research examining ecosystem and human health impact in an integrated fashion will transform the challenges facing scientists into limitless opportunities to answer persistent questions. Science can then inform evidence-based policies and enable sustainable ecosystem and human health protection.

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