Natural disasters, like floods, wildfires, or earthquakes, can cause long-term health effects for residents and disaster restoration workers. Poor air quality, in particular, can cause detrimental, long-term effects.
Particulate matter and a number of chemicals are released into the air, which are breathed in long after the event.
They can be more harmful than you think. Here are the ways that natural disasters affect outdoor air quality, and how you can protect yourself.
Fires and earthquakes cause dry, inhalable particulate matter to be released into the air. When particles are smaller than 2.5 microns, the particles are harmful to human health and difficult for your body to remove.
Because of the variation in size and composition, particles can be inhaled deep into the lungs and aren’t easily dislodged. In high concentrations, they can cause serious respiratory problems.
Particulate matter concentrations are often lower indoors, so you can reduce your exposure by spending more time in (well-ventilated) housing. You can also check out the air quality index to see whether the air quality in your local area is safe to breathe. You can wear filtering masks if you must go outdoors.
Fires also increase concentrations of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons in the air, which are above healthy levels for human respiration.
Carbon monoxide reduces the blood’s ability to supply oxygen to tissue in the body, which causes stress to the heart. When inhaled at higher levels, carbon monoxide causes fatigue, headaches, dizziness, nausea, confusion and disorientation.
Environment Canada recommends that a carbon monoxide detector is installed in every home. Since the symptoms can come on slowly and cause sleepiness and disorientation, many people aren’t aware that they are experiencing carbon monoxide poisoning as it is happening. Advanced preparedness is important - test your detector regularly and know the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Oxides of Nitrogen
Oxides of nitrogen lower our bodies’ resistance to lung infection - which is detrimental when the body is also dealing with particulate matter and other contaminants. It’s also very difficult for people with pre-existing conditions like asthma and emphysema to clear out nitrogen oxides from their lungs.
While disasters are a common source of exposure, many professionals are also exposed to levels of nitrogen oxides in their day-to-day lives. Professionals like dentists, anesthesiologists, and veterinarians should be aware of their potential risk of exposure and take appropriate cautions.
Restoration workers and surrounding residents should take precautions to reduce their nitrogen oxide exposure following a disaster. A good ventilation system can drastically reduce concentrations indoors. While near disaster centers, scavenging masks and other workplace protective gear is recommended.
Volatile Organic Compounds
VOCs are a number of organic compounds in the air that, when inhaled, can cause respiratory irritation, headaches, fatigue, and occasionally, serious illness.
Small concentrations aren’t specifically harmful to human health. But in larger concentrations, specifically following natural disasters, can have negative health effects. Even low concentrations, over a long period of time, can result in sickness.
Formaldehyde is one of the most commonly occurring VOCs. It can cause coughing, headaches and eye irritation, and can trigger negative effects in people with asthma. It’s also known to be carcinogenic. It’s released from processing or burning of wood and wood products.
Benzene is another common VOC emitted from burning wood. It’s been associated with a range of acute and long-term adverse health effects and diseases, including cancer and aplastic anaemia.
Many VOCs are released in higher concentrations as a result of natural disasters. Reducing your exposure means a multivariate approach. Make sure to have good, filtered ventilation in your home, and change your filters regularly. Ensure you have a carbon monoxide detector, and keep your windows closed in the event of a nearby disaster.
You can also install a hydroxyl generator, which produces molecules that are not harmful to humans but that react easily with many VOCs to break them down safely. They’re low-energy, efficient, and can reduce after-effects of natural disasters on human health.