Elizabeth Grossman and Winnie Bird teamed up to examine what happened to hazardous chemical contamination following the tsunami:
A transition to more environmentally benign materials and manufacturing processes could help protect community, environmental, and emergency worker health and safety even when natural disasters exceed our worst predictions.
In the course of reporting this article, we contacted federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, EPA, FEMA, and NIEHS in the United States, and a number of corresponding agencies in Japan, to ask how emergency management plans for chemical hazards have worked in the course of actual disasters and how assessment of such potential hazards have been evaluated in the immediate aftermath of disasters. These agencies directed us to the copious—but general—information available online that describes existing chemical emergency management plans and regulations. But many open questions remain about the implementation and adequacy of these policies, particularly in the event of a disaster with such wide-ranging potential health hazards as the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
The situation in Japan is evolving, and it’s clear that in an event like the March 11 disaster, primary concerns will always be the immediate safety and recovery for everyone affected. But even during initial rescue efforts, responders need to be protected against chemical hazards, and when cleanup and rebuilding efforts begin, the potential health hazards posed by chemical contaminants become increasingly important. Judging from the extreme difficulty of obtaining concrete, detailed information about potential chemical hazards following the Japan disaster, this appears to be an aspect of emergency preparedness that, despite well-established formal disaster-response plans, remains inadequately addressed.