Types of Disasters and Their Consequences

American Public Health Association 

In This Article

Manmade and Technological Disasters

Manmade or technological disasters are unpredictable, can spread across geographical boundaries, may be unpreventable, and may have limited physical damage but long-term effects. Some disasters in this class are entirely manmade, such as terrorism. Other technological disasters occur because industrial sites are located in communities affected by natural disasters, equipment failures occur, or workers have inadequate training or fatigue and make errors. The threat of terrorism is categorized as a potential technological disaster and includes bioterrorism, bombings, civil and political disorders, riots, and economic emergencies.

Technological disasters include a broad range of incidents. Routes of exposure are water, food and drink, airborne releases, fires and explosions, and hazardous materials or waste (e.g., chemical, biological, or radioactive) released into the environment from a fixed facility or during transport. Fires, explosions, building or bridge collapses, transportation crashes, dam or levee failures, nuclear reactor accidents, and breaks in water, gas, or sewer lines are other examples of technological disasters.

Communities in which industrial sites are located or through which hazardous materials pass via highway, rail, or pipeline are at risk for technological disasters. Injuries can occur to workers at the site, to responders bringing the incident under control and providing emergency medical care, and to residents in the community. Those with preexisting medical conditions, such as lung or heart disease, could be at increased risk for negative health outcomes if exposed to toxic releases. Burns, skin disorders, and lung damage can result from exposure to specific agents. Table 5 lists the health consequences of several classes of toxins.

Ensuring that local industry implements basic safety procedures can significantly reduce negative health outcomes from accidental releases of toxins. Emergency preparedness—including the ability of prehospital and hospital systems to care for patients exposed to industrial agents, the training of medical personnel to work in contaminated environments, and the stockpiling of personal protective equipment for responders—is key to providing care following industrial accidents or acts of bioterrorism. Government agencies, in coordination with hospitals and public health, should conduct computer simulations or field exercises to test the community's ability to evacuate those at risk and the ability of the health sector to provide care to those exposed to accidental releases. Information about the clinical management of exposure to toxins can be provided by poison control centers, CHEMTREC, and industry databases.

  • Take a visible role in community planning.

  • Conduct hazard assessments.

  • Review Material Safety Data Sheets for agents produced, stored, or used locally and regionally to evaluate range of potential adverse health effects.

  • Conduct vulnerability analyses to identify target populations and potential adverse public health consequences.

  • Conduct risk assessment to determine if specific agents will reach toxic levels in the vicinity of vulnerable populations.

  • Determine minimal thresholds of exposure for specific agents that would trigger evacuation.

  • Gather information on chemical neutralization, estimation models of plume-dispersion, and appropriate antidotes.

  • Work with local hospitals to stockpile appropriate antidotes, medications, and supplies.

  • Stockpile two pills per person of potassium iodide in communities located within ten miles of nuclear reactor sites.

  • Provide emergency services and medical care to victims.

  • Activate the health alert network.


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