Recognizing Technology-Caused Disaster

Recognizing Technology-Caused Disaster

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 Impact on Humans  ¦  Impact on Air, water, and Soil  ¦  Common Technology-Caused Disasters

The disaster may be the result of perfectly normal, everyday life like the spraying of agricultural fields with pesticides, excessive nitrates in soil and water because of livestock impoundment operations, high concentrations of chemicals applied to a golf course, or accidents involving mining operations.

Or it may be the result of an incident that was unimaginable, like breach of gasoline storage tanks by floodwaters and debris, an accidental spill or deliberate release of toxic or biologic materials, a leak from a toxic disposal or storage area, a transportation accident, or exposure to building materials and furnishings.

As technology of all kinds pervade our daily lives, technology-caused emergencies, illnesses, and pollution may affect many aspects of our health and environment.  The affected

element may be human bodies, air, soil, water, and animals in the human food chain.

Sometimes, the affects will be immediately identifiable and proper remediation may be applied.  But in other situations, the only way to recognize the disaster will be symptoms experienced by humans or nature. 


Impact on Humans

Although difficult to generalize, some recognizable effects on human bodies may include:

  • Clusters of birth defects, still births, miscarriages, and low birth weight
  • Clusters of similar cancers
  • Asthma and other respiratory distress is aggravated or develops
  • Unexplained illnesses in multiple households in a concentrated geographic area
  • Liver and kidneys, which filter toxins, may be weakend or damaged and become dysfunctional
  • Circulatory systems become dysfunctional or minimalized
  • Other physical ailments like headaches, nausea, blurred vision, flu-like symptons become common

Concerns for specific groups of people are raised because:

  • Children, with smaller bodies, will exhibit symptoms at lower exposure
  • Pregnant women and nursing mothers may unknowingly expose their child through the food she eats or the air she breathes, causing birth defects or early health issues
  • Persons with weakened immune systems are less resistant to any health consequences
  • Persons with pre-existing sensitivity to chemicals and toxins may have a cumulative effect that presents severe and life-threatening complications as their bodies attempt to cope

Impact on Air, Water, and Soil

Movement of gases or toxic dust in the air we breathe is nearly impossible to predict as the wind blows.  One example is the movement of smoke, ash and dust among and around buildings in the greater New York City vicinity following the 2001 collapse of the World Trade Center Towers.  When the particulate material is airborne, there may be no way to avoid exposure.

The pollutants taken up from contaminated soil by animals and plants can serve as a source of food contamination for humans.  Consumption of these foods may lead to elevated levels of chemicals and result in health impacts that may be short or life-long in nature.  The chemicals in the body may also be passed on to unborn and breast-feeding infants.

Some indicators in soil, water, and air that have alerted communities to the presence of a chronic technology-caused disaster include:

  • Fish or animal kills
  • Abnormalities in new-born animals and fish
  • Loss of normal vegetation
  • Changes in normal soil and water color
  • Pungent or bad odors in the air and around standing water


Common Technology-Caused Disasters

Abandoned warehouses and manufacturing plants will often contain asbestos, rotting building materials, lead paint, and other residual toxic materials.

Airborne ash and contaminants resulting from incidents such as wildfires, explosion and fire in buildings or manufacturing and refinery facilities, and volcanic eruptions may coat everything within a large radius.  The collapse of the World Trade Center Towers and the eruption of Mt. St. Helen are well-known examples.

Handling Accidents that result in release of toxic sumstances tend to include:  spills, fires, accidents, human error, or improper handling and application of pesticides, fungicides, insecticides, and fertilizers.

Impoundment Failures occur when a break occurs in a structure built to contain materials.  This could be the failure of a dam, dike, or the sealant beneath a disposal site.  It could take the form of catastrophic flooding or a slow leak that seeps into soil, ground water, or buildings.

Sick Buildings may be the result of newly developed building materials or tight buildings that do not "breathe".  Problems could include:  mold, fungus, or viruses in heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems or noxious fumes and gases from interior furnishings, glues, and paint.

Technological Aspects of Natural Disasters - Floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, and earthquakes often dislodge propane tanks, break sewage system connections, tip storage tanks and float them down rivers, scatter asbestos, and in many other ways contaminate the disaster-affected area.

Transportation Accidents may involve trucks, trains, ships/barges, or planes and be caused by collision, explosion. leak/spill, or fire.  All of these modes of transportation carry fuel and may transport dangerous cargo.


"Hurricane Katrina Debris"

"The debris generated as a result of the devastation and flooding associated with Hurricane Katrina consisted of sheetrock and insulation, furniture, treated and untreated lumber, municipal solid waste, household hazardous waste, electronic waste, and asbestos-contaminated materials.

"The waste streams were disposed of in construction and demolition dumps with no liners, in holes in the ground on private property, and through open burning across the devastated area.

"The results of unregulated disposal was air contamination by organic and inorganic toxic chemicals and asbestos, production of hydrogen sulfide from degradation of sheet rock, surface water contamination from the toxic chemicals in the waste, and groundwater contamination from leachate generated from the waste streams buried in unlined holes.

"The private properties on which hurricane debris was buried, were frequently in close proximity to individual water wells used by residences.  The burial of the waste in unlined holes in the ground has impacted the groundwater quality and serves as source of contamination of residential wells.  Inappropraite treatment and disposal of hurricane debris will serve as sources of contamination for many years into the future."

Wilma Subra, M.S. in Microbiology/Chemistry; President of Subra Company



 "The Love Canal"

City of Niagara Falls,  New York:  From 1942 through 1953, the Love Canal (sixty feet wide and three thousand feet long) was used by local chemical plants as a landfill.  Nearly 42 million pounds of "toxic chemicals" were dumped.  In 1953, when at maximum capacity, the site was filled with layers of dirt.

Single-family housing surrounded the Love Canal site and the Board of Education purchased the Love canal land to build the 99th Street School.  At the time, homeowners were not provided information of potential hazards associated with locating close to the former landfill site.

In 1978, the Love Canal neighborhood included approximately 800 family homes, 240 low-income apartments, and the 99th Street Elementary School.  August, 1978, state and federal emergency designations closed the school and permanently relocated 239 families living in the first two rows of homes encircling the landfill, but not the remaining 10 block area.



"...I sat there reading the headlines..."

"There was a sigh of relief knowing that the federal government was going to be involved with the issues in Love Canal and the hope was that decisions would be made by the feds and take the control out of the local politicians' hands.

"After the first year of the Love Canal saga, we the residents realized that the 'official' response was always the same.  'We don't have enough information to correlate your illness to your exposure to the Love Canal landfill.'

"Many times we were told, 'Many of you work in the chemical industry, you use nail polish remover and cleaning supplies, some of you residents also buried roof tiles in your backyard.  So, how can we differentiate your health issues between living in the Love Canal and your other everyday exposures.'

"The original governmental study that revealed that the higher miscarriage rate and birth defect rate in Love Canal was first released to the media August 2, 1978.

"The study was actually completed in March, 1978.  And we, the residents, had no idea that this study was to be released and were taken by surprise by the study and the data that was revealed.

"Imagine being 7 or 8 months pregnant and getting up in the morning on August 2, 1978 and reading the headlines, Pregnant Women and Children 2 Years and Under Should Leave the Love Canal Area.

"I was pregnant and also had a daughter younger than 2 years old.  I just sat there by myself, on my living room floor, rereading the headlines over and over and not knowing what to do."

Joann Hale, Love Canal resident from 1974 thru 1978.






























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Contact Info

Zachary Wolgemuth
Executive for UCC Disaster Ministries
700 Prospect Ave
Cleveland, OH 44115