Real-time data is needed to monitor health after disasters

ODisasters linked to other factors, such as the millions of Floridians deprived of power by Hurricane Ian or the record monsoon rains that killed 1,500 people in Pakistan, have increased fivefold over the past 50 years due to the change climatic. Researchers must be prepared to respond quickly to climate-related and man-made disasters.

When investigating the health effects of a disaster like a hurricane or an oil spill on community members and cleanup workers, the most valuable information for researchers is timely data on their health and their exposure. However, these types of data are rarely collected in real time, posing a challenge for research teams and communities themselves as they seek to learn how their health might be affected.

My colleagues and I working on the Gulf Long-Term Monitoring Study encountered this challenge while studying the workers involved in the response to and cleanup of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, where nearly 5 million barrels of oil were spewed out. in the surrounding water. The resulting oil slicks covered thousands of miles. Workers involved in the response and cleanup soon began reporting symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, etc. My colleagues and I wanted to know if these symptoms were possibly related to exposure to chemicals used to disperse oil in the gulf during cleanup.


Without real-time data from cleaning agents, we had to estimate their exposures to dispersants applied by planes and boats. By sifting through thousands of pages of reports, articles and reference documents, we were able to adapt a model used in pesticide management to estimate the levels to which cleaning agents might have been potentially exposed.

It is now possible to collect real-time data using sensors and cloud-based data management systems following unforeseen events such as the Deepwater Horizon spill. The use of technology for this purpose would greatly facilitate the assessment of exposures associated with response and clean-up activities and could facilitate the assessment of work-related exposures and community exposures. It would also allow epidemiologists to assess associations between exposures and health outcomes with greater precision.


The increasing frequency and magnitude of weather and climate disasters over the past decade, as well as a number of significant man-made disasters, is a trend that is expected to continue and affect the public and industry, to both directly and indirectly.

There is an urgent need to develop real-time data collection and management systems that place a minimal burden on community members recovering from the crisis or on teams that are busy responding to it. Collecting real-time health and exposure data could facilitate more agile risk management decision-making and contribute to more accurate studies of how disaster-related exposures affect health.

This will require investing in low-cost sensor technologies to measure specific agents, such as chemical agents following a chemical spill, with geolocation capability and cloud-based software compatible with a wide range of sensor types. sensors. The benefits of real-time data collection from an array of low-cost real-time sensor technologies compared to the cost of using conventional instrument technologies go beyond understanding the effects on health. Rapidly identifying high-risk situations that could result in human health risks as well as property loss or environmental damage enables crisis managers to respond quickly, focusing resources where they are most needed. required, resulting in more efficient use of resources.

To make sense of this information, a workforce must be trained in advance on these technologies and systems and be ready to deploy.

While building this infrastructure may seem daunting, it is imperative to begin collecting real-time health and exposure data after disasters to learn how to better protect community members and workers after disasters.

Susan Arnold is an associate professor of occupational and environmental health in the University of Minnesota’s Division of Environmental Health Sciences and director of its Exposure Science and Sustainability Institute.

Comments are closed.