Environmental emergencies, including hurricanes, floods, wildfires, oil spills, chemical spills, acts of terrorism, and others, threaten the lives and health of the public, as well as those who respond.
Responders are normally the first on the scene of an emergency, and range from police, fire, and emergency health personnel, to community volunteers. As they work to bring the emergency under control, and save lives and property, they may expose themselves to potentially harmful conditions and contaminants.
What is NIEHS Doing?
While emergencies range in size, location, cause, and effect, most have an environmental component. Organizing, coordinating, and directing available resources, to minimize the impact of the event on the community and environment, is vital.
NIEHS addresses these needs through research, training, and other response efforts. By utilizing the data collected and learning from these events, NIEHS also supports future research and helps develop resources for wider use.
The Worker Training Program funds nonprofit organizations and universities that have a demonstrated track record of providing successful occupational health and safety training.
Grant support allows NIEHS-funded researchers to lend their expertise and perform vital studies to be better prepared for, and more quickly respond to and recover from, disasters and other public health emergencies.
Through the NIH Disaster Research Response (DR2) Program, NIEHS helps develop new strategies, tools, and processes to support the collection of time-critical information after a disaster, to help save lives, speed up recovery, and improve our ability to handle future disasters.
Across all types of emergencies, responders have short-term and long-term needs related to their mental health and resilience. The Worker Training Program, with support from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, offers training in English and Spanish for workers, supervisors, and health care providers, to address these critical, but often overlooked, health needs.
The Worker Training Program also offers online information, including training modules, webinars, booklets, and fact sheets to prepare workers for emergency situations.
NIEHS responds quickly when disasters strike.
Immediately after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, NIEHS Worker Training Program staff were on-site to train approximately 150,000 workers to protect their own health and safety, while cleaning up the beaches and other areas affected by the spill.
In response to Superstorm Sandy in 2012, the NIEHS Worker Training Program and its partners mobilized and trained cleanup workers, with a focus on protecting those who dealt with hazardous materials, such as lead, asbestos, and mold.
During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, NIEHS joined with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to develop health and safety information to train at-risk workers who may be exposed to hazardous infectious agents. NIEHS now coordinates the WTP Ebola Biosafety and Infectious Disease Response Program .
Research to Understand the Health Impacts of Disasters
In-house, NIEHS scientists perform research to help inform health officials, workers, and communities about exposures to contaminants, and how to reduce risks, illness, and injuries.
The National Toxicology Program participated in the response to the West Virginia Elk River chemical spill in 2014, utilizing several experimental approaches to predict the toxicity of chemicals present in the Elk River, which serves as the water source for about 300,000 people in the Charleston area.
In response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, NIEHS scientists quickly developed and implemented the GuLF STUDY (Gulf Long-term Follow-up Study),. The ongoing study will provide information to help understand the long-term health effects of the approximately 33,000 workers involved in oil spill cleanup activities.
NIEHS-supported research is geared toward understanding the health impacts of disasters, to improve disaster responses, reduce health impacts, and prevent future harm through timely research.
Through the NIEHS-led Deepwater Horizon Research Consortia, four universities partnered with 45 community organizations to ensure that research done by the universities related directly to the needs of local communities in the Gulf Coast region.
Stories from the Environmental Factor (NIEHS Newsletter)
- Ebola and Infectious Disease Biosafety Training Launched (November 2016)
- Disaster Research Response Takes Next Steps (September 2016)
- NIEHS Science Informs Federal Response to Flint Water Crisis (March 2016)
- Worker Training Program Builds Collaborations and Enhances Data Use (November 2015)
- Five Years After Oil Spill, NIEHS Continues Work in Gulf Region
Dealing with Disasters (January 2016)
- Emergency Responder Health: What Have We Learned from Past Disasters? (August 2010 Environmental Health Perspectives article)
- The National Library of Medicine's Disaster Information Management Research Center provides access to mobile-based tools to quickly identify and respond to chemical exposures.
- The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety's Disaster Science Responder Research Program has developed an approach that will allow for timely and scalable responder-based research that can be implemented before, during, and after a disaster.