Article

How earthquake debris affects the environment and our health


Earthquake debris harms us and the environment (credit: isoga on Shutterstock)
Earthquake debris harms us and the environment (credit: isoga on Shutterstock)

While currently many extreme events happen that are caused by climate change, such as floods and droughts, some extreme events happen naturally. For example, earthquakes are caused by suddenly moving tectonic earth plates. This sudden movement is possible when two tectonic plates hardly move for a while because of friction, but the moving force has become so large that the friction is not enough to hold the plates in place. As our continents are moving constantly and will always do, these events will continue to exist. In this time lapse video, you can see how plates have moved to where they are today and where they are expected to go in the future:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uLahVJNnoZ4


These sudden movements can have different levels of magnitude, as measured on the Richter scale. This means that some earthquakes are very mild and don't have a significant impact, while other earthquakes are more severe and cause a lot of damage:
  • < 2.5 on the Richter scale: earthquakes that are usually not felt. They occur millions of times each year.
  • 2.5–5.4: earthquakes that are usually felt but only cause minor damage. They occur about half a million times each year.
  • 5.5–6.0: earthquakes that cause slight damage to buildings and other structures. They occur about 350 times each year.
  • 6.1–6.9: earthquakes that cause a lot of damage, especially in highly populated areas. They occur about 100 times each year.
  • 7.0–7.9: earthquakes that cause major damage. They occur about 10–15 times each year.
  • > 8.0: earthquakes that completely destroy the area near the earthquake's center. They occur once every one or two years.
This means that each year, over 100 earthquakes cause serious damage. When these earthquakes affect populated areas, they result in a lot of earthquake debris. Earthquake debris is the leftovers from collapsed buildings and the remains of buildings that have become unstable because of an earthquake or after-shocks. Categories of earthquake debris are:
  • household debris such as tables, mirrors, clothes, etc.
  • household devices such as dishwashers, ovens, freezers, etc.
  • electronic debris such as TVs computers, telephones etc.
  • vehicles such as cars, trucks, boats, etc.
  • hazardous debris such as batteries, oil, cleaning chemicals, etc.
  • debris from buildings such as bricks, concrete, metal, etc.
  • vegetative debris such as trees, bushes, etc.
  • rotting materials such as fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy, etc.
  • dead animals such as livestock and pets
  • earth materials such as soil, rocks, tsunami sludge, etc.
Earthquake debris (credit: Binaya Mangrati on Shutterstock)
Earthquake debris (credit: Binaya Mangrati on Shutterstock)

The amount of earthquake debris depends on earthquake characteristics such as magnitude, but also construction characteristics. This means that an earthquake of the same magnitude in an area with poorly constructed buildings will cause more debris than in an area with buildings that are built according to earthquake regulations. In the worst-case scenario, the earthquake is strong and buildings collapse easily. This happened for example on February 6th, 2023 when Turkey was affected by an earthquake of magnitude 7.8. Here, tens of thousands of buildings collapsed completely or partly because building regulations to prevent earthquake damage were ignored. This caused millions of tons of earthquake debris.
Dealing with this debris is an important step in recovering from such an event, initially in critical areas and infrastructure such as hospitals and roads, and soon after also in the remaining affected areas. When dealing with debris sustainably, this does not only involve removing debris, but also sorting, separating, and recycling materials. This can be challenging because it involves threats but is very important as it affects both public health and the environment, including soil, surface and groundwater, and air. Here are examples of how earthquake debris affects the environment and our health:

Dust

The first example cause of environmental and health damage from earthquake debris is dust. Dust can come from different sources and, as a result, has different consequences.
One source of dust is the collapse or demolition of buildings during or after an earthquake, or the transport of debris to disposal sites. The most dangerous type of dust is asbestos. While asbestos has many favorable properties for buildings and other infrastructure such as sewage pipes, including being strong and resistant to heat, it is a dangerous material. This is because its dust contaminates air, water, and soil so that we accidentally inhale or eat asbestos particles. As asbestos fibers are extremely thin - 1200 times thinner than a hair - they can hardly be removed by our bodies and can therefore cause continuous harm. For example, in our lungs, the particles can cause immediate damage through inflammations and long-term damage through diseases such as lung cancer. In this video, you can see the huge dust clouds from collapsing buildings:


Another source of dust is landslides. This dust can for example contain airborne spores of fungi that cause breathing diseases when inhaled. One of these fungi is Coccidioides immitis which causes coccidioidomycosis, or valley fever. Valley fever can cause various symptoms, including tiredness, a cough, fever, shortness of breath, and headaches. While many people don't have symptoms and may recover by themselves, some need medication to recover.
Broken road due to a landslide after an earthquake (credit: Antonio Nardelli on Shutterstock)
Broken road due to a landslide after an earthquake (credit: Antonio Nardelli on Shutterstock)

A third source of dust is tsunami sludge. Tsunami sludge is a muddy mix of water, debris, and sediment that is swept over the land by a tsunami wave. A tsunami wave is caused by an underwater earthquake. This sludge can contain chemical substances, heavy metals, oils, and harmful microorganisms. After these substances have contaminated the environment, they can affect our health. For example, it can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which involves blocked airflow and breathing problems such as shortness of breath. This can severely impact our lives and even lead to having to go to the hospital.
Area covered in tsunami sludge (credit: Fly_and_Dive on Shutterstock)
Area covered in tsunami sludge (credit: Fly_and_Dive on Shutterstock)


Heavy metals and chemicals

The second example cause of environmental and health damage from earthquake debris is heavy metals such as cadmium, chlorine, zinc, and nickel, and chemicals. Heavy metals and chemicals can contaminate both surface and groundwater when they leak into water bodies such as streams, lakes, rivers, and seas. This can have a long-term negative effect on aquatic ecosystems because of reduced water quality.
Also, heavy metals and chemicals in contaminated water can be harmful to us when used as, for example, irrigation or drinking water. When heavy metals enter our bodies, they can affect natural processes and cause long-term damage. For example, it can cause Parkinson's disease (further reading: "How heavy metal can cause Parkinson disease", chapter 10 of "A Guide to a Healthier Planet")

Putrescibles

The third example cause of environmental and health damage from earthquake debris is putrescibles. Putrescibles are things that can decay or rot when they're not taken care of properly, such as food and other organic materials. These organic materials can start to go off when the power goes down after the electricity network has been damaged by an earthquake. As it starts to go off, bacteria and mold have a chance to grow, which can make catching a disease through food more likely. This can for example result in diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and breathing issues. Also, when putrescibles enter the environment, they can attract animals that potentially carry pests, such as rats. This can not only affect our health but also the health of other organisms.
Example of a putrescible: corn that has gone off (credit: KOOKLE on Shutterstock)
Example of a putrescible: corn that has gone off (credit: KOOKLE on Shutterstock)


Disrupted sanitation

The fourth example cause of environmental and health damage from earthquake debris is disrupted sanitation. Disrupted sanitation can provide breeding grounds for arthropods such as mosquitoes, flies, and mites and attract rodents such as rats. These animals can spread infectious diseases. For example, flies can spread coli (Escherichia coli) and several types of salmonella bacteria (Salmonella spp), mosquitoes can spread several types of fever and malaria, and rodents can spread Leptospira bacteria, which can cause leptospirosis. This bacteria affects animals and humans, causing a wide range of symptoms in humans, including fever, headaches, yellow skin, and red eyes.
Also, disrupted sanitation can cause materials to become contaminated with feces. When sewage water with feces contaminates surrounding water bodies, waterborne diseases such as cholera and hepatitis A can spread. These diseases can harm earthquake recovery workers and residents who come into contact with this water. Also, it can for example affect organisms in aquatic environments by introducing diseases, reducing water quality, and changing the number of nutrients. Too many nutrients can cause eutrophication. Eutrophication means excessive nutrients cause dense plant life, which can cause aquatic animals to suffocate.
Lake affected by eutrophication, which can be recognized by plants fully covering the water surface (credit: Manishankar Patra on Shutterstock)
Lake affected by eutrophication, which can be recognized by plants fully covering the water surface (credit: Manishankar Patra on Shutterstock)


Conclusion and how we can take action

So, earthquake debris affects the environment and our health because it causes dust, heavy metals and chemicals, and putrescibles to end up in our surroundings. Also, it can disrupt sanitation and cause wounds, making it more likely for diseases to affect us. Moreover, the debris itself and dealing with the debris can disturb natural ecosystems and disturb our mental health.
Here are practical ideas of what you and I can do to limit the negative impact of earthquake debris on the environment and our health:
  • Preventing asbestos from breaking
  • Disposing of asbestos separately from other debris
  • Bringing asbestos to a disposal site that can deal with this type of debris properly
  • Wearing protective clothes when dealing with earthquake debris
  • Wearing a protective mask to prevent breathing in earthquake dust
  • Disposing of earthquake debris properly
  • Following earthquake regulations when building a new house
  • Collaborating with others to set up a debris management plan and put it into practice
Which one of these can you implement in your daily life? And do you have further ideas of what you and I could do? Thank you in advance for putting them into practice and sharing them in a comment to this question to inspire all of us.
Did you enjoy this article? Then I'm sure you'll love my book "A Guide to A Healthier Planet" as well. Check it out at:


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About the author

Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten is a an internationally recognized environmental sustainability expert. She is a science communicator, helping scientists in the fields of nature and sustainability increase the outreach of their results and allowing us all to put scientific insights into practice and contribute to a sustainable future. Erlijn has inspired thousands of people around the world - for example - by supporting the United Nations with her expertise, her book "A Guide to A Healthier Planet" published by Springer Nature, her YouTube channel Xplore Nature, and her posts on social media. Links are included in the comments.

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  • johnte ndeto

    3 w

    It's essential to distinguish between natural events like earthquakes and those exacerbated by human-induced climate change, like floods and droughts.

    4
    • Rukia Ahmed Abdi

      3 w

      I think Nations needs to go back to the drawing board on management of disasters such as earthquakes. The recent ones in turkey and Afghanistan proved that most countries are ill prepared

      6
      • Rotich Kim

        3 w

        @rukia_ahmed_abdi Absolutely we need to have a new negotiation

        3
        • johnte ndeto

          3 w

          @rukia_ahmed_abdi natural disasters are of more concern than war we should change our focus

          2
        • walter lungayi

          3 w

          Proper management and cleanup efforts are essential to mitigate these effects and safeguard both the environment and public health.

          5
          • George Kariuki

            3 w

            Thank you Dr. Erlijn van Genuchten for sharing your expertise! Love the practical ideas for reducing the negative impact of debris. Let's all do our part for a #SustainableFuture.

            5
            • mary Mwihaki

              3 w

              This is very dangerous for humans life precautions should be taken to prevent destruction and loss of human lives

              6
              • Jane Wangui

                3 w

                Earthquakes could be very catastrophic..measures to deal with them should be put into place so as to save lives.

                11
                • Rotich Kim

                  3 w

                  So dangerous to human life we need more measure to in place to reduce the lost of human life

                  4
                  • Munene Mugambi

                    3 w

                    I think only a few countries are well prepared to deal with earthquakes and their aftermaths. Bigger problem is, the countries who have the means to deal with such tectonic plate movements rarely experience them and the people who are in no position to deal with them suffer the most from them. Take for example Haiti, a country plagued by infighting and poverty and then they have to deal with earthquakes. They do not have the right materials to handle them, or the required shelters. I think the United Nations can do better in terms of helping such countries be better prepared by establishing standards and assisting in their implementation.

                    10
                    • Erlijn van Genuchten

                      3 w

                      Links to further resources: - More about her book “A Guide to a Healthier Planet”: https://www.sustainabledecisions.eu/guide-to-a-healthier-planet - Invite Erlijn as speaker: https://www.sustainabledecisions.eu/speaker - Xplore Nature YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/@xplore-nature - Toward (a green) peace of mind community – resolving eco-anxiety: https://www.sustainabledecisions.eu/toward-a-green-peace-of-mind - Science communication support: https://www.sustainabledecisions.eu/science-communication - Website: https://www.sustainableDecisions.eu/

                      5
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