By SC National Guard (170831-Z-AH923-081) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

February 8, 2018; Public Library of Science

A recent study in the journal PLOS One by Jennifer Horney and her team of researchers at Texas A&M School of Public Health examined the concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) present in organic compounds collected before and after Hurricane Harvey in the Manchester neighborhood of Houston. Manchester is a Latinx neighborhood known to be disproportionately predisposed to health risks due to exposure to pollution from nearby refineries and industrial sites.

This study used a small sample group of only 25 homes due to data limitations. Samples of dust had been taken in Manchester in 2016 to measure residents’ exposure to PAHs, so when Hurricane Harvey struck in August 2017, the scientists returned to gather soil samples to test against the dust samples they already had. The opportunity to conduct this study is considered fortuitous given the pervasive lack of pre-event data that generally prevents such investigations. This methodology illustrates that the lack of baseline data, particularly in vulnerable communities, makes it extremely challenging to determine how a disaster might impact a community. The scientists’ ability to map the changing concentrations of PAHs before and after Hurricane Harvey in this case shed new light on the importance of baseline data collection, especially where it can be used in disaster prevention and preparation.

The collection and assessment of baseline data is vital to determining the relative role of environmental exposure in the health of a population, especially where disparities in exposure to environmental health hazards are disproportionately high. That is why this study advocates for more studies to gather baseline data to help clarify the link between disparities in health status and disparities in exposure to environmental health hazards.

Climate change and aging equipment are increasing the potential and severity of ruptures, spills, and contamination in the event of a natural disaster or other catastrophe. The outcomes of such disasters are aggravated by the proximity of an increasing number of people forced to live near Superfund sites, landfills, waste dumps, refineries, and other industrial hazard sites, a risk that is disproportionately higher for low-income people and communities of color. According to Horney’s report, “The tandem growth of disaster frequencies and populations living near industrialized areas has brought greater attention to the potential health effects of environmental contamination associated with joint natural and technological (na-tech) disasters. Na-tech events occur as a result of disaster-associated technological malfunction or failure, leading to the unintentional release of hazardous materials.”

When a disaster strikes, there are immediate risks to people and property from the disaster itself. Even once people are out of danger from debris or building collapse, there are risks associated with equipment failures that can result in exposure to environmental health risks. For example, in addition to hazards to Houston residents from the roaring wind and lashing rain that flooded 200,000 homes, the area hosts 13 Superfund sites and more than 800 wastewater treatment facilities.

Ultimately, the study’s findings are not all that surprising: Areas with high concentrations of PAHs before the hurricane had lower concentrations after and vice versa as the floodwaters stirred the contaminants around the neighborhood and beyond. While this is important in its own right, the takeaway message from this study is that the collection of baseline data is integral to understanding and preventing public health issues and that the lack of information greatly impedes the ability of relief and restoration workers to contend with environmental contamination.

It is not surprising that a hurricane would impact the distribution of contaminants or that information about hazards pre- and post-disaster could potentially help public health and emergency responders determine areas of risk in the future. The lack of data makes it difficult to attribute changes in environmental conditions to the disaster.

The assertion made by the Texas A&M team that baseline data is necessary for environmental justice is not unique or new; another report on environmental justice and health policy needs came to the same conclusion and dedicated a chapter to the necessity of establishing a baseline for “ascertaining the relative role of environmental exposure in determining the health of a population.”

While these studies advocate for increased data collection, there are organizations attempting to quantify public health risk factors, like the Social Vulnerability Index, which measures community resilience to external stresses on human health, and the CDC’s environmental public health tracking network. There are also federal agencies and nonprofits collaborating to address health hazards, like the EPA’s asthma network, and mitigating their environmental causes. These programs include strategies to limit exposure to environmental triggers, all based on data collected. Complementing those efforts are organizations like the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that have the long-standing goal of reducing environmental health disparities and promoting environmental justice.

By studying how disasters impact communities differently, we can be better prepared for them. These kinds of studies teach us a great deal about how to successfully conduct research in the aftermath of a disaster, what kind of data is most important to collect, what kind of information do communities need to know after a disaster, what would be the most appropriate disaster response given the hazards, and more. This information is necessary to ensure that disaster relief is rapid and responsive to community concerns and to guide policymaking for future preparedness and response.— Mi Lovejoy