Image of flooded pig farm in North Carolina

Rain from Hurricane Florence (2018) flooded 30 pig-manure lagoons in North Carolina, causing waste to escape and to potentially expose nearby residents to toxic contaminants.

August 18, 2020

A new, three-year study led by Associate Professor of Environmental Health Sacoby Wilson and Assistant Professor of Urban Planning Marccus Hendricks will analyze the impact that exposure to environmental contaminants associated with natural disasters has on  vulnerable communities. 

Funded by an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and conducted in partnership with colleagues at Duke University, the project will produce a modular tool to evaluate contaminant risk under a variety of disaster scenarios and offer a framework for building community resilience and readiness.

“Natural and technological disasters disproportionately impact frontline and fenceline environmental justice communities,” Wilson said. “This funding is a great opportunity to use a transdisciplinary and mixed methods approach to understand, model, and predict contaminant risks for vulnerable communities and susceptible populations. Children and the elderly who have some of the highest risk for morbidity and mortality during and after disasters.”

When natural hazards like hurricanes or earthquakes collide with the built environment, they can lead to Natural Hazard Triggered Technological Disaster—or Na-tech—events. These catastrophic accidents such as industrial fires, explosions, or sewage leaks release harmful contaminants into the environment, overwhelming communities and jeopardizing human health. 

The UMD-Duke team will analyze the relationship between disaster intensity, contaminant release and human exposure, specifically the additional risks endured by economically  and socially vulnerable populations, including low-income families, children and the elderly.

Working closely with two hazard-susceptible communities in North Carolina—one rural, one urban—the interdisciplinary team will develop comprehensive strategies for risk mitigation and enhanced readiness for disasters.

Intersecting the natural environment, technology and socio-economic systems-- an area that has yet to be adequately studied-- the UMD-Duke project will offer a critical intervention for vulnerable communities that fosters enhanced quality of life.

Applied Environmental Health PhD student Sakereh Carter will also work on the project. 

Other members of the UMD-Duke team include Mark Borsuk, Associate Professor of Environmental Engineering, Duke University (Co-PI) and graduate students Celine Robinson (Duke-Environmental Engineering), Sakereh Carter (UMD-Applied Environmental Health), Omar Muhammad, President, Low Country Alliance for Model Communities (LAMC) in North Charleston, SC, and Devon Hall, Director, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH), Duplin County, NC.

Dr. Sacoby Wilson is an associate professor of applied environemenal health who directs the Community Engagement, Environmental Justice, and Health (CEEJH) Laboratory in the UMD School of Public Health. His core areas of expertise including exposure science, environmental justice science, environmental health disparities, air pollution, built environment, participatory action research, geospatial tools, climate change, industrial animal operations, community “in-powerment” and resilience. Dr. Wilson has nearly twenty years of experience performing community-engaged research including community-based participatory research (CBPR), community-university partnerships, citizen science, and crowd science on a number of environmental justice and health issues including goods movement issues in Baltimore, Savannah, GA and Charleston, SC; disasters and environmental injustice in the Gulf Coast; industrial chicken farming on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, industrial pollution and traffic-air pollution exposures in the Washington, DC region; and fossil fuel extraction, transport, and burning in Maryland. 

Dr. Marccus Hendricks is an assistant professor of urban studies and planning and a faculty affiliate with the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health. His core areas of expertise include infrastructure planning and management, hazard mitigation and disaster recovery planning, and environmental planning particularly through an environmental justice and social vulnerability to disaster lens. His research has focused on both natural and technological risks including flooding and fertilizer explosions, as well as cascading events such as wet-weather events that overwhelm sanitary sewers and cause contamination, household back-ups, and overflows. His work emphasizes participation and action that uses methods including photography, visual inspection, and environmental sampling.