Earthquakes, slides, pandemic flu and other disease outbreaks, and accidents or exposures involving hazardous substances are real or potential health threats to individuals and communities. They can affect air quality, cause shortages of safe water and food, and cut off your access to electricity, gas, telephone, medicines, and other services. Family members may be separated. Hospitals and other health services may be overwhelmed during public health emergencies. Although such incidents are difficult to prepare for, there are steps you can take to protect your health and well-being.
So, what can you do to be prepared?
Chemicals, fumes, viruses, bacteria, low-level radiation, and other potentially harmful substances are common in the environment. When these substances are released in large quantities or get out of our control, they can become immediate public health threats. Guidelines for how to prepare for and avoid a problem often depend on how the particular substance is spread.
In general, a health threat may spread through a community:
Chemicals are the most likely source of air contamination. An accident at a plant or factory or a train wreck might release large amounts of a hazardous chemical into the air, for instance. If bacteria or viruses causing diseases such as anthrax, pneumonic plague, smallpox, or tularemia were released in a spray (aerosol) form, anyone who inhaled the substance could be affected. While air itself does not become radioactive, release of radiation into the environment can create radioactive dust and dirt (fallout) that can make the air unsafe.
What to do
If a hazardous substance is released into the environment:
Chemicals, heavy metals like lead and mercury, and living organisms such as bacteria and viruses can all be threats to a safe water supply. These substances can also contaminate food. Unintentional contamination of water as a result of chemical leaks or spills, natural disasters, and other causes has been a much bigger problem than deliberate contamination. Likewise, accidental food contamination by botulinum toxin (the agent that causes botulism), E. coli, and other harmful organisms during the storage or preparation of food is much more likely than intentional food poisoning.
How to prepare
With the exception of a known accident (such as a chemical spill into the water supply), you probably would not know you had consumed contaminated water or food unless you developed symptoms.
To reduce your risk of consuming contaminated food or water and to be better prepared for public health emergencies affecting the water supply:
If there is an emergency affecting the water supply:
Some bacteria, viruses, and other biological agents can be spread from person to person, or from animals or insects to people. The ease of international travel has made many of these health threats more difficult to contain. Recent health threats such as H5N1 influenza (avian flu), SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), the West Nile virus, and monkeypox have made people more aware of how easily disease can spread, not just within a community but from one community to the next.
The World Health Organization has current, reliable information about communicable diseases and health concerns throughout the world. Visit the agency's website at www.who.int/en for updates on specific health emergencies.
To reduce your chances of being infected with or spreading a contagious disease:
A little organization can go a long way toward helping you feel ready to handle the unexpected. Having an emergency plan and an emergency supplies kit for your household can help you and your family be better prepared for any kind of disaster.
Putting together an emergency plan is easy.
You may have other things you want to include in your plan, especially if you have children in school or if anyone in your household has special needs. Review your plan yearly, and make sure that phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and other items are still current.
The essentials of an emergency kit are the same no matter what the situation: water, food, first aid supplies and medicines, blankets and clothing, special needs items (such as baby formula), and certain tools and household items, including a battery-powered radio, a flashlight, and extra batteries.
Use the disaster supplies checklist(What is a PDF document?) as you gather supplies. Store everything in one place, preferably a cool, dark location. Consider putting together a smaller version of your emergency kit that you could take if you had to leave your home. Once you've assembled your emergency supplies, remember to check and replace them periodically:
For more information, see the Other Places to Get Help section of this topic.
ByHealthwise StaffPrimary Medical ReviewerThomas M. Bailey, MD - Family Medicine
Current as ofMarch 15, 2017
Current as of: March 15, 2017
Thomas M. Bailey, MD - Family Medicine
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