USGS - science for a changing world

Central Mineral and Environmental Resources Science Center

  CMERSC Home | About Us | Our Science | Projects | Products | Contact Us

Minerals and Health

Environmental Disaster Research by USGS Minerals and Health Project Scientists

Environmental Disaster Responses

photo of slag wool The attacks on and collapse of the World Trade Center towers created massive dust clouds that enveloped much of lower Manhattan and that left behind substantial deposits of settled dusts. USGS studies showed that the dusts were a complex mixture of bioreactive, bioaccessible, and biodurable metal and mineral toxicants. For example, concrete particles contained abundant calcium hydroxide, which generated caustic alkalinity when it came into contact with fluids in the eyes, respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal tract. This caustic alkalinity was mitigated in outdoor dusts by reactions with carbonic acid in rainfall. The dusts were also enriched in bioaccessible lead (from lead paint) and antimony (from fire retardants). Results of the USGS and other characterization studies help public health experts understand how exposures to the dusts may have contributed to observed short- and long-term health impacts.

Minerals and Health Project scientists have helped assess environmental and health implications of complex, potentially hazardous materials produced by many different natural and anthropogenic disasters:

These studies have demonstrated a unique role for interdisciplinary USGS science in environmental disaster response, which is to:

While participating in these responses, project scientists have also been able to make many observations about disaster processes and disaster impacts on the natural and built environments.

Anticipating Impacts of Future Environmental Disasters

Graphic of ARkStorm modeling for California. The ARkStorm Scenario modeled the impacts of a 45-day long series of extreme winter storms hitting the State of California, similar to the storms that occurred in the winter of 1861-1862. Our analysis indicated, for example, that a substantial number of animal feeding operations, shown in pink, would likely be flooded. Such flooding can release large quantities of metabolic wastes, natural and synthetic animal hormones, phamaceuticals, parasiticides, pathogens, and antibiotic-resistant pathogens into the environment. ARkstorm damages could also lead to complex environmental contamination from wastewater treatment plants, oil refineries, chemical plants, residential areas, commercial areas, and many other natural and anthropogenic sources.

Using lessons learned from disaster responses, project scientists have also contributed to USGS-led interdisciplinary disaster scenarios, including:

Our contributions to these scenarios have helped experts in hazards, disaster response/preparedness/restoration, economics, public health, and engineering better anticipate and plan for environmental and related health impacts from these plausible future disasters, thereby enhancing disaster resilience.

Environmental Disaster Publications by Minerals and Health Project Scientists and our Collaborators

Overview publications that discuss materials from many disaster types:

  1. Plumlee, G.S., Morman, S.A., Hoefen, T.M., Meeker, G.P., Wolf, R.E., and Hageman, P.L., 2013, The environmental and medical geochemistry of potentially hazardous materials produced by disasters: Treatise on Geochemistry, Volume 11, p. 257-304 (invited chapter). DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-08-095975-7.00907-4. Request TOG 2013 pdf.
  2. Plumlee, G.S., Morman, S.A., and Cook, A., 2012, The environmental and medical geochemistry of urban disasters. Elements Magazine, v. 7, no. 6, p. 451-457. (invited paper), DOI: 10.2113/gselements.8.6.451. Request Elements 2009 article pdf.
  3. Plumlee, G.S., 2009, Report from Ground Zero: How geoscientists aid in the aftermath of environmental disasters: Earth Magazine, v. 54, p. 38-47.

World Trade Center. In addition to publications 1-3 above, see:

  1. Plumlee, G.S., Hageman, P.L., Lamothe, P.J., Ziegler, T.L., Meeker, G.P., Theodorakos, P., Brownfield, I., Adams, M., Swayze, G.A., Hoefen, T., Taggart, J.E., Clark, R.N., Wilson, S., and Sutley, S., 2005, Inorganic chemical composition and chemical reactivity of settled dust generated by the World Trade Center building collapse: in Urban Aerosols and Their Impacts: Lessons Learned from the World Trade Center Tragedy, J.S. Gaffney and N.A.Marley, eds., American Chemical Society Symposium Series 919, p. 238-276. Request Plumlee ACS pdf.
  2. Meeker, G.P., Sutley, S.J., Brownfield, I.K., Lowers, H.A., Bern, A.M., Swayze, G.A., Hoefen, T.M., Plumlee, G.S., Clark, R.N., Gent, C.A., 2005, Materials characterization of dusts generated by the collapse of the World Trade Center: in Urban Aerosols and Their Impacts: Lessons Learned from the World Trade Center Tragedy, J.S. Gaffney and N.A. Marley, eds., American Chemical Society Series 919, p. 84-102. Request Meeker ACS pdf.
  3. Clark, R.N., Swayze, G.A., Hoefen, T.M., Green, R.O., Livo, K.E., Meeker, G., Sutley, S., Plumlee, G., Pavri, B., Sarture, C., Boardman, J., Brownfield, I. , Morath, L.C., 2005, Environmental mapping of the World Trade Center area with imaging spectroscopy after the September 11, 2001 attack: in Urban Aerosols and Their Impacts: Lessons Learned from the World Trade Center Tragedy, J.S. Gaffney and N.A. Marley, eds., American Chemical Society Series 919, p. 66-83. Request Clark ACS pdf.
  4. Swayze, G.A.; Hoefen, T.M.; Sutley, S.J.; Clark, R.N.; Livo, K.E.; Meeker, G.P.; Plumlee, G.S.; Morath, L.C.; and Brownfield, I.K., 2005 in press, Spectroscopic and x-ray diffraction analyses of asbestos in the World Trade Center dust: in Urban Aerosols and Their Impacts: Lessons Learned from the World Trade Center Tragedy, J.S. Gaffney and N.A.Marley, eds., American Chemical Society Series 919, p. 40-65. Request Swayze ACS pdf.
  5. Clark, R.N., R.O. Green, G.A. Swayze, G. Meeker, S. Sutley, T.M. Hoefen, K.E. Livo, G. Plumlee, B. Pavri, C. Sarture, S. Wilson, P. Hageman, P. Lamothe, J. S. Vance, J. Boardman, I. Brownfield, C. Gent, L.C. Morath, J. Taggart, P.M. Theodorakos, and M. Adams, 2001, Environmental Studies of the World Trade Center area after the September 11, 2001 attack: U.S. Geological Survey Open File Report 01–0429,

Hurricane Katrina. In addition to publications 1-3 above, see:

  1. Plumlee, G.S., Foreman, W.T., Griffin, D.W., Lovelace, J.K., Meeker, G.P., and Demas, C.R., 2007, Characterization of flood sediments from Hurricane Katrina and Rita and potential implications for human health and the environment, in Farris, G.S., Smith, G.J., Crane, M. P., Demas, C.R., Robbins, L.L., and Lavoie, D.L., eds., Science and the storms: the USGS response to the hurricanes of 2005: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1306, p. 246-257. [pdf file, 3.8 MB]

Wildfires. See publications 1-3 above.

Mine wastes and tailings spills. In addition to publication 1 above, see:

  1. Plumlee, G.S., and Morman, S.A., 2011, Mine wastes and human health: Elements Magazine, v. 7, p. 399-404. DOI: 10.2113/gselements.7.6.399 (invited paper)

LUSI mud volcano. See publication 1 above.

Volcanic ash. In addition to publications 1-3 above, see:

  1. Stewart, C., Horwell, C., Cronin, S., Delmelle, P., Plumlee, G., Baxter, P., Calkins, J., Damby, D., Morman, S., Oppenheimer, C., 2013, Protocol for analysis of volcanic ash samples for assessment of hazards from leachable elements. International Volcanic Health Hazards Network Publication, [pdf file, 353 KB]

Lead poisoning linked to artisanal mining, Nigeria:

  1. Plumlee, G.S., Durant, J.T., Morman, S.A., Neri, A., Wolf, R.E., Dooyema, C., Hageman, P.L., Lowers, H.A., Fernette, G., Meeker, G.P., Driscoll, R.L., Benzel, W.M., Berry, C.J., Crock, J.G., Goldstein, H., Bartrem, C., Tirima, S., Behbod, B., von Lindern, I., and Brown, M.J., 2013, Linking geological and health sciences to assess childhood lead poisoning from artisanal gold mining in Nigeria. Environmental Health Perspectives. v. 121, p. 744-750, plus 10 pages supplemental material.

Colorado flooding:

  1. Plumlee, G., 2014, When water, gravity and geology collide: Firsthand observations of the impacts of the 2013 Colorado floods: Earth Magazine, v. 59, p. 29-34.

Gulf Oil Spill:

  1. Lewan, M., Warden, A., Dias, R., Lowry, Z., Hannah, T., Lillis, P., Kokaly, R., Hoefen, T., Swayze, G., Mills, C., Haris, S., and Plumlee, G., 2014 in press, Asphaltene content as a measure of oil losses related to the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Organic Geochemistry.
  2. Khanna, S., Santos, M.J., Ustin, S.L., Koltunov, A., Kokaly, R.F., and Roberts, D.A., 2013, Detection of salt marsh vegetation stress and recovery after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in Barataria Bay, Gulf of Mexico using AVIRIS Data. PLoS ONE, v. 8, issue 11, 13 p., e78989. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0078989
  3. Kokaly, R.F., Couvillion, B.R., Holloway, J.M., Roberts, D.A., Ustin, S.L., Peterson, S.H., Khanna, S., and Piazza, S.C., 2013, Spectroscopic remote sensing of the distribution and persistence of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill in Barataria Bay marshes: Remote Sensing of the Environment, 129 p. 210-230. DOI: 10.1016/j.rse.2012.10.028

Disaster Scenarios. In addition to publications 1 and 2 above, see:

  1. Plumlee, G.S., Morman, S.A., and San Juan, C., 2013, Potential environmental and environmental-health implications of the SAFRR Tsunami Scenario in California, chapter F, in Ross, S.L., and Jones, L.M., eds., The SAFRR (Science Application for Risk Reduction) Tsunami Scenario: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2013–1170, 34 p.,
  2. Plumlee, G.S., Alpers, C.N., Morman, S.A., and San Juan, C., submitted, Environmental and environmental-health implications of the ARkStorm Scenario. Submitted to Natural Hazards Review, ARkStorm Special issue, 26 msp. pages plus 22 p. supplementary text and supplementary map file.
  3. Plumlee, G., Alpers, C., and Morman, S., 2011, Environmental and health issues, in Porter, K., and others, Overview of the ARkStorm Scenario: U.S. Geological Survey Open File Report 2010–1312, p. 148-150.
Scientists sampling ash and soils after Four Mile Canyon fire. Minerals and Health Project scientists have studied the environmental and health characteristics of ash, soils, and debris from more than 20 wildfires at the wildland-urban interface, such as the 2009 Four Mile Canyon fire west of Boulder, Colorado shown in this photograph. White ash, produced by the near complete combustion of vegetation and wood, can contain abundant caustic alkali salts that cause irritation of the respiratory tract, skin, and eyes, and that can cause surface waters they contact to develop alkaline pH levels that are possibly detrimental to aquatic life. Smoke, ash, and debris from combusted buildings can have high levels of lead, arsenic, hexavalent chromium, and other toxicants.
Scientists sampling mill tailings. In 1996, catastrophic failure of a mill tailings impoundment at the Marcopper open pit copper mine, Marinduque Island, Philippines, led to the release over 2 million cubic meters of mill tailings into the Boac River. Tailings deposits more than a meter thick filled the river bed along much of the river's 30-kilometer course to the ocean. USGS analyses in 2000-2003 showed that tailings deposits remaining on the river banks had become acid-generating due to the oxidation of abundant iron sulfides. Although mill processing chemicals and metals such as copper were the primary concern of first responders in 1996, the USGS analyses showed that acid-rock drainage from the tailings was a much greater longer-term environmental and health concern. USGS analyses also showed that the tailings were very low in lead, and therefore did not pose a health threat for lead poisoning as local residents had feared.

The use of firm, trade, and brand names is for identification purposes only and does not constitute endorsement by the U.S. government.

Download if needed: Excel Viewer | PDF Reader | Powerpoint Viewer | Word Viewer

Mineral Resources Program
Eastern Central GMEG Alaska Minerals Information Crustal Geophysics and Geochemistry Spatial Data

Accessibility FOIA Privacy Policies and Notices

USAGov logo U.S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
Page Contact Information: CMERSC Webmaster
Page Last Modified: 17-Nov-2014@22:56