Disasters, natural & otherwise: Mother nature often causes a lot of physical damage, but technological accidents seem to produce worse emotional distress

Disasters, natural & otherwise: Mother nature often causes a lot of physical damage, but technological accidents seem to produce worse emotional distress – includes related article

Andrew Baum

NATURAL DISASTERS FASCINATE PEOPLE. The raw power of nature smashing into the concrete and brick of human settlements, the violent winds, the raging waters-all symbolize the eternal battle between us and the elements. In many cases, we win. By building dams to reduce flooding, by predicting and preparing for storms and earthquakes, we can often minimize serious damage and loss of life. But our control is limited. All too often natural forces wreak havoc–physically, socially and psychologically–when we can’t restrain them.

In recent years we have been hearing more about different kinds of disasters: leaking toxic-waste dumps that contaminate our homes and drinking water; nuclear power plants that release radiation into the air; asbestos insulation that threatens the health of workers, homeowners and schoolchildren. These calamities, often undramatic and undetected for years, may cause individual distress and social disruption greater than disasters brought on by natural forces.

The fact that these are caused by people rather than by nature seems to affect the way we react to them. Although there are exceptions, technological calamaties, especially when they involve toxic substances, can cause more severe or longer-lasting mental and emotional problems than do natural disasters.

There seem to be several reasons for this. One is that the former give us someone to blame. Following the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear-power plant for example, lawsuits were filed and protests organized to stop reopening of the plant. Similar actions have taken place at Love Canal and in other communities affected by leaking toxic chemicals. As the lawsuits and recriminations drag on for months and years, people constantly relive the horrors and stress of the event

Natural disasters don’t normally produce these continuing reminders of calamity. Whom do you blame for an earthquake or a blizzard? While we may criticize public officials for not coping properly with the damage or for not giving enough warning, we can’t blame them for the event itself. It was, we say, an act of God, and we move on to do what we can to diminish its effects.

Blaming others also affects our sense of control over the world. Research has suggested that losing this feeling of control lessens our ability to cope with stress of all Ids. We never thought human beings had much power over natural disasters, so we don’t feel that we have lost control and allowed a blizzard or tornado to hit. A leaking toxic-waste dump or a major plane crash is another matter. Since we like to believe that our technology is under control, such disasters may shake our feeling of power over our creations. Suddenly, the beast of technology is prowling free. The seemingly endless nature of technological calamities is another factor that can make them more stressful. Natural disasters are usually swift, powerful events that sweep across an area suddenly and we gone. There are exceptions to this–droughts and some floods are slow in building, provide some warning as they intensify and typically persist for days, weeks or longer. But the most common natural disasters, such as tornadoes and hurricanes, strike fiercely with little warning, cause visible destruction and disappear as suddenly as they arrive.

Natural catastrophes usually reach their low point quickly. When a storm strikes, it does its worst and moves on. The danger is over and recovery and reconstruction can begin. Much the same is true of an earthquake; although there may be tremors and aftershocks, there is a clear point at which danger has been replaced by the need to rebuild. Many technological threats, in contrast, lack a clear beginning or end. AtThree Mile Island, for example, the emergency unfolded slowly. It was more than a week before most people could believe that the danger of radiation was past, and many living in the area are still worried. The unusual reason to the 1972 Buffalo Creek flood in West Virginia illustrates how human causation seems to affect our reactions to disaster. Most studies of flood victims show that their feelings of distress–anxiety, depression and other symptoms –increase rapidly immediately after the disaster and then the away fairly quickly. Within a year most victims have recovered, although some of the symptoms may return if people are reminded of the event. The Buffalo Creek flood, however, created long-lasting emotional upheaval, evident among many victims two years after the flood and in some cases up to 14 years later. What made Buffalo Creek different?

Following several days of rain, a coal-slag dam at the head of the middle fork of Buffalo Creek collapsed suddenly, unleashing millions of gallons of water in an enormous wave. The muddy water roared through the valley, crashing off the walls of the hollow and washing away almost everything in its path. Many people were asleep in their homes as the wave hit. If they awoke, they found that their valley had been changed forever. The land itself had been disfigured, homes, automobiles and trailers had washed away and many of their neighbors were dead. The community, which had been very cohesive before the flood, was uprooted and smashed beyond recognition.

This tremendous death, destruction and lost sense of community certainly contributed to the unusually severe, long-lasting emotional stress in the Buffalo Creek area. But another difference between this and most other floods was the issue of human responsibility. The rain itself was not sufficient to create the flood. It was brought on by the collapse of a coal-slag dam built by the mining company. People built the dam, and it failed.

The issue of when the worst is over is particularly stressful when toxic substances are involved. The potential for contamination from human-caused accidents or neglect is seemingly endless: Illegal dumping, inadequate safeguards and accidental releases of toxins of all kinds have created standing hazards throughout the United States.

In addition to the physical harm toxins can do, their presence (past or current) can make people uneasy about the possible results of exposure. Many of the health consequences of toxin exposure, such as cancers or genetic abnormalities, take years to develop or become evident. As a result, people who fear or know that they were exposed may worry for years about what will happen to then.

Research my colleagues and I have done at Three Mile Island and at toxic-waste sites suggests that such worry and uncertainty are associated with stress that persists for years. Chronic stress and the emotional, hormonal and immunological changes associated with it may cause or exacerbate many illnesses. And since public officials often lose credibility following a disaster, the information they release to reduce fears-such as data on the low rate of actual exposure to radiation or other toxins-may actually serve to increase these fears.

When we compared a group of people living near Three Mile Island with a similar group elsewhere, we found tat the Three Mile Island group reported more physical complaints, such as headaches and back pain, as well as more anxiety and depression. We also uncovered long-term changes in levels of hormones, such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol, that the body secretes during stress. These hormones affect various bodily functions, including muscle tension, cardiovascular activity, overall metaboric rate and immune-system function.

Not everyone we studied in the Three Mile Island area showed these symptoms. In general, three main factors, individually or in combination, distinguished the people who were less affected by stress from those who showed more symptoms: their coping style, social support and assumption of responsibility. First, the people who concentrated on controlling their emotions showed fewer symptoms of stress than those who tried to change the situation itself in various ways, such as by campaigning against the reopening of the plant. Second, those who had more friends and family to depend on generally reported fewer emotional problems. And third, people who accepted more responsibility for what had happened to them after the accident, rather than blaming others for all their troubles, seemed to do better.

Our observations at Three Mile Island support the idea that long-term psychological problems are more likely after technological disasters than after natural ones. But this belief is based largely on studies that are different in a number of ways, such as their measures of mental health, their methods of selecting victims and control subjects to study and the time lag between the disaster and the study. These differences make precise comparisons difficult.

We have begun comparative studies of natural and technological disasters that avoid these problems. One preliminary study compared the effects of technological failure that exposed some people to hazardous chemicals leaking from a waste dump with those of a flood that caused widespread community disruption and property damage. We compared people living near the dump will those in the flood area and also with a control group, similar in age, background and other demographic characteristics, whose neighborhood had not been flooded and was not near any hazardous-waste site.

We collected the sane physiological and psychological data from the three groups, 9 months after the announcement of the toxic hazard and 10 months after the flood. People who had lived near the toxic-waste site reported greater distress and exhibited the same kinds of stress-related physiological changes we observed in people living near Three Mile Island. The flood victims, on the other hand, expressed little continuing distress and showed few stress-related physiological changes; their responses were similar to those of our control subjects.

Factors other than different causes could have produced the different long-term effects in these cases. But it seems, overall, that most of us are better able to adjust to and recover from the problems created by natural catastrophes than those posed by technological accidents and oversights. With fast-growing populations and the rapid spread of technological change, the possibility of technological disasters or toxic accidents is widespread. As we work towards minimizing their occurrence, we must also learn more about the psychological and biological changes they induce and how their detrimental effects on mental and physical health can be alleviated.


JUST AS PEOPLE FEEL less stressed by natural disasters than by technological ones, they seem to take natural hazards less seriously than those caused by human beings. Public officials in New Jersey have learned this the hard way over the last few years in cases involving radon, an invisible, ordorless and tasteless gas produced by the natural decay of uranium and radium. When it enters and remains in homes or other poorly ventilated buildings, the highly concentrated gas can become dangerous. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta estimate that radon causes somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States each year.

When tests showed radon at potentially dangerous levels in homes in northern New Jersey, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) released information about the threat through newspapers, radio and TV. Homeowners were advised to have radon levels monitored and to take remedial action if the levels exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommendation of 4 picocuries of radiation per liter of air.

To see how well the message was getting through, the NJDEP commissioned several surveys beginning in April 1986 to measure public awareness of the danger and see what people were doing about k. Net D. Weinstein of Rutgers University and colleagues Peter M. Sandman and Mary Lou Klotz found that the chief response had been apathy. Only half of the homeowners had even thought about having their homes tested and very few had actually done so.

At the American Psychological Association meeting last year, Weinstein reported that even the few people who had had their homes tested underestimated the threat. “When people who know that radon can cause lung cancer are asked how serious it would be if they became ill from radon, only half say it would be serious or very serious . . . very few are taking prudent protection measures.”

While “apathy” seems an accurate description of this reaction to naturally occurring radon, it doesn’t fit the storm created in Vernon, New jersey, when the radon threat had a human cause. Thousands of drums of contaminated dirt from the site of an abandoned factory that had used radium to make luminous watch dials were stored near homes in the towns of Montclair and Glen Ridge. To end the problem, state officials decided to mix clean dirt with the contaminated dirt (which was fairly low in radioactivity to begin with) to reduce the radiation to below the Environmental Protection Agency danger level. They then planned to move the mixture to an abandoned quarry in a rural area and convert the quarry into parkland.

Weinstein described what happened next: “When Vernon, the town picked out to be the recipient of this good fortune, heard about the plan . . . the reaction was incredible. In this sleepy rural area of 20,000 people, rallies attracting 3,000 and 10,000 people were held. A three-mile-long caravan drove across the state and surrounded the governor’s mansion.

“Civil-disobedience training sessions were held in anticipation of a need to block the entrance to the quarries, and more extreme groups, the Radical Underground and the Raiders, were apparently ready to shoot out the tires of arriving trucks or blow up bridges if the feared radon came by train. In the face of this vehement opposition, and the state’s total inability to convince anyone in Vernon that the risk was really negligible, the government backed down and started looking for other disposal mechanisms.”

Weinstein believes that several related factors-having someone to blame, the resulting anger and the question of who was responsible for taking action-help explain these sharply different reactions to radon. When there is someone or something people can blame for a risk, they act. In Vernon, the enemy was the government, which said that caring in radon didn’t pose any risk, an idea that the people of Vernon found “presumptuous and outrageous. . . . anger at the state and alarm at radon are deeply intertwined. In fact, anger seems to be far more powerful a mobilizer than fear.”

These two examples reconfirm a general psychological truth: People are normally more willing to blame someone else for a problem than to deal with one personally by taking individual action. Getting them to act is particularly hard when people can’t see the problem directly and it supposedly exists in their own homes, where they normally feel safe and comfortable. Under these circumstances, the researchers point out, “it is extremely difficult to get people to take any precautions more burdensome than switching from aspirin to Tylenol.”

COPYRIGHT 1988 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group