Natural and technological disasters are exceedingly stressful events that disrupt communities and families and traumatize individuals. Natural disasters are events beyond the control of human technology such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Technological disasters include events such as explosions, floods due to dams breaking, industrial accidents, and nuclear power plant failures. Both natural and technological disasters can create health and psychological problems due to death, injury, property loss, economic changes, and loss of shelter, food, and water supplies. Although the immediate safety of people is paramount, government and public health authorities give insufficient attention to the later psychological effects. Both types of disasters are associated with increased psychological morbidity, especially in those with preexisting conditions or susceptibility. Alcohol and other drug abuse often rises after a disaster, especially in men. Children sometimes show regression in their developmental skills such as toileting, dressing, and speech. Older children and adolescents usually experience longer-lasting effects of disasters than younger children.
Technological disasters pose slightly different problems than natural disasters. Community cohesion can increase as a result of a natural disaster, but technological disasters often divide communities due to uncertainties in blame, community connections to the source of the disaster, the injustices of the event, the stress of seeking government or corporate remedy, loss of trust in the government and public agencies, and the uncertain extent of long-term harm due to exposure to toxic substances. Examples of technological disasters are the toxic wastes at Love Canal, New York; nuclear reactor accidents at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, and Chernobyl, Ukraine; and the explosions of chemical plants in Seveso, Italy, and Bhopal, India.
Leaking toxic wastes at Love Canal created a crisis in 1978 that involved an elevated rate of miscarriages, lower child growth rates, and high stress due to failure of government and corporate officials to cope with waste. Many residents demanded relocation and compensation for health and property. Lawsuits were resolved only after approximately 15 years. As a result of Love Canal, the U.S. Congress passed the “Superfund” law that taxed companies in order to create a fund for cleaning up landfills.
The first proper epidemiological studies of the psychological effects of a technological disaster were conducted after the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident. Follow-up studies 5 years or longer after the accident found that Three Mile Island residents who evacuated had higher levels of blood pressure, stress hormones, disturbed sleep, depression, and intrusive thoughts compared with samples from other areas matched for socioeconomic status. Mothers who had preschool children at the time of the accident were especially susceptible to adverse psychological effects. Risk perceptions of the damaged plant were positively related to negative psychological effects. As of 2005, there are still scientific debates about the physical health effects of the radiation released during the accident. However, there is agreement that the accident created long-lasting negative psychological effects. The same is true of the accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine. The psychological effects of the chemical plant disasters in Seveso and Bhopal were not studied.
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