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Tracking How Natural Disasters Become Pollution Disasters

Researchers Work to Understand Risk to Vulnerable Communities, Build Resilience

By Maggie Haslam

Smoke billows from a chemical plant

Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Smoke billows from one of many chemical plants in "Cancer Alley," one of the most polluted areas of the United States, in Baton Rouge. A new study led by UMD researchers will analyze how natural disasters ranging from hurricanes to river flooding can expose people to dangerous environmental contaminants.

Natural disasters ranging from hurricanes to river flooding can expose people to dangerous environmental contaminants, and now a new three-year study led by University of Maryland environmental health and urban planning researchers will analyze the impact of such hazards, particularly in vulnerable communities. 

Funded by an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and conducted in partnership with colleagues at Duke University, Sacoby Wilson, associate professor of environment health, and Marccus Hendricks, assistant professor of urban planning, will establish a mathematical modeling approach to evaluate contaminant risk under different disaster scenarios and offer a framework for building community resilience and readiness.

“Natural and technological disasters disproportionately impact vulnerable communities, particularly those on the fence line of manufacturing and chemical companies, refineries and agricultural processing plants,” said Wilson. “Climate change-related extreme weather including more intense hurricanes and floods will only increase economic and health risks in these communities."

When natural phenomena like hurricanes or earthquakes collide with the built environment, they can trigger catastrophic accidents such as industrial fires, explosions or sewage leaks that release dangerous contaminants, overwhelming communities and jeopardizing human health. For example, in 2018, Hurricane Florence caused over 50 waste ponds from hog farms to flood into nearby communal waterways.  

The UMD-Duke team will develop a risk analysis framework to demonstrate the relationship between disaster intensity, contaminant release and human exposure. In particular, they will look at the additional risks endured by economically and socially vulnerable communities and populations, including low-income families, children and the elderly, who have some of the highest risk for morbidity and mortality during and after disasters.

According to Hendricks, combining technical research modeling and the experiences of community members is critical to establishing community resilience.

“Communities have a lot to offer,” he said. “The challenge is on researchers to effectively integrate, and that is what we are trying to do with this research project.”

Working closely with two hazard-susceptible communities in North Carolina—one rural, one urban—the interdisciplinary team will leverage their expertise in environmental engineering, planning and community engagement and public and environmental health to develop comprehensive strategies for risk mitigation and enhanced readiness for disasters. 



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