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The environmental and medical geochemistry of potentially hazardous materials produced by disasters

December 31, 2014

Many natural or human-caused disasters release potentially hazardous materials (HM) that may pose threats to the environment and health of exposed humans, wildlife, and livestock. This chapter summarizes the environmentally and toxicologically significant physical, mineralogical, and geochemical characteristics of materials produced by a wide variety of recent disasters, such as volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and extreme storms, spills of mining/mineral-processing wastes or coal extraction by-products, and the 2001 attacks on and collapse of the World Trade Center towers. In describing these characteristics, this chapter also illustrates the important roles that geochemists and other earth scientists can play in environmental disaster response and preparedness. In addition to characterizing in detail the physical, chemical, and microbial makeup of HM generated by the disasters, these roles also include (1) identifying and discriminating potential multiple sources of the materials; (2) monitoring, mapping, and modeling dispersal and evolution of the materials in the environment; (3) understanding how the materials are modified by environmental processes; (4) identifying key characteristics and processes that influence the materials' toxicity to exposed humans and ecosystems; (5) estimating shifts away from predisaster environmental baseline conditions; and (6) using geochemical insights learned from past disasters to help estimate, prepare for, and increase societal resilience to the environmental and related health impacts of future disasters.