Objective: Natural disasters exacerbate risks of hazardous environmental exposures and adverse health consequences. The present study determined the proportion of previously identified lead industrial sites in urban locations that are at high risk for dispersal of toxic chemicals by natural disasters.
Methods: Geographic analysis from publicly available data identified former lead smelting plants that coincide with populated urban areas and with high-risk locations for natural disasters.
Results: From a total of 229 urban smelting sites, 66 (29%) were in relatively high-risk areas for natural disasters: flood (39), earthquake (29), tornado (3), and hurricane (2). States with urban sites at relatively high risk for natural disaster included California (15); Pennsylvania (14); New York (7); Missouri (6); Illinois (5); New Jersey (4); Kentucky (3); Florida, Oregon, and Ohio (2 each); and Indiana, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Texas, Utah, and Washington (1 each). Incomplete historical records showed at least 10 smelting site locations were affected by natural disaster.
Conclusions: Forgotten environmental hazards may remain hazardous in any community. Uncertainty about risks in disasters causes disruptive public anxiety that increases difficulties in community responses and recovery. Our professional and public responsibility is to seek a better understanding of the risks of latent environmental hazards.