United Church of Christ

Defining "Technology-Caused Disaster"

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Acute Disasters ¦  Chronic Disasters  ¦  Point Source Hazards ¦  Non-Point Source Hazards 


A technology-caused disaster is the breakdown of modern systems, equipment, or engineering which results in harm to people, their surroundings, and the environment.

The term includes a broad range of issues and consequences of modern-day life.  The disaster may be chronic or endemic rather than event-driven, may be disguised in the devastation of a natural disaster or within other community issues, may divide and split a community rather than encourage the community to rally.  Costs of recovery may be indeterminate because of the length of time recovery will require, the parties involved in the recovery, or health/clean-up costs immediately attributable to the disaster.

Community, state, and federal governmental agencies may not recognize a technology-caused event as a disaster.  Lack of official recognition, such as a Presidential Disaster Declaration, means public funds would not be available.

Obviously, when a rail car overturns and spills chemicals and persons are evacuated from their homes, the event is recognizable and visible (acute) and the point source is obvious.  However, one of the unique characteristics of technology-caused disaster may be the uncertainty that a disaster has occurred because of low contamination over a lengthy time period (chronic) and have a non-point source.

Acute Disasters

Acute disasters usually have a well-defined and relatively short period of time from beginning to end, but it can result in long-term dangers or sources of pollution. Examples of acute disaster events are:

  • An accident involving a truck or train carrying a toxic chemical
  • A one-time spill from a mine tailing impoundment dam or lagoon
  • Breach of a fuel storage tank during a flood

Chronic Disasters

Chronic disasters are more likely to develop over a long period of time, be repeated or continual behavior or incidences, and be  hidden or "silent".  Chronic problems may be revealed after an acute incident or after enough warning indicators have accumulated to reveal the underlying danger.  Examples of chronic incidents are:

  • Deliberate legal or illegal dumping of debris, chemicals, or other toxic or polluted materials in a supposed "safe" storage area
  • A slow leaching or leaking of toxic materials froma storage area
  • Buildup of excessive levels of toxics, like nitrates, in ground water

Point Source Hazards

Point Source Hazards are usually known, tested, and regulated.  Most technology-caused disasters involving some type of pollutant are result of point sources.  Examples of Point Source Hazards include:

  • Fumes from manufacturing plants and research facilities
  • Leakage from storage tanks, dumps, containment pools, and pipelines
  • Spills at agricultural storage or retail gasoline outlets
  • Chemical application at recreational areas such as golf courses

In addition to accidents or ignored maintenance, another common cause of release of Point Source Hazards are disposal methods considered adequate a decade ago whicha re now susceptible to corrosion or damage to containers that make for unintentional leakage.

Non-Point Source Hazards

Non-Point Source Hazards originate from many places are are difficult if not impossible to track.  Examples of Non-Point Source Hazards are:

  • Pesticides and fertilizers carried off agricultural fields by storm water runoff.  For example, the run off from the agricultural fields in the mid-west into the Mississippi River is causing a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Burning of agricultural fields (sugar cane, wheat, rice, grains) that puts contaminated ash in the air
  • Wind blown dust containing toxic particles