In Case of Emergency: How Technology Can Protect the Environment

March 1, 2023

Unlike natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, chemical and biological disasters are often preventable and provide more opportunities to defend against environmental threats before, during, and after an event occurs.  

Environmental disasters, which range from chemical spills to train derailments and factory fires, can cause air and water pollution, wildlife death, and ecosystem damage according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Recent disasters––including the Norfolk Southern train derailment in Ohio that released toxic chemicals into the environment and an explosion at a chemical factory in Thailand which authorities warned could cause both short- and long-term health issues to residents––demonstrate the scale of environmental catastrophes. 

To prevent and reduce the environmental impact of these disasters, scientists, environmental groups, and innovators are developing and deploying new technologies.  

Engineers have designed a variety of equipment to improve employee and workplace safety aimed at preventing these disasters. Respiratory masks and protective clothing enhance employee safety, while advanced sensors detect hazardous materials and monitor their release. 

Mechanisms such as interlocks and emergency stop systems, which can shut down a machine immediately if a problem occurs, can be added to improve machinery safety. Machine vision and safety sensors are also employed to detect unsafe conditions and immediately stop operations. Many of these tools were used in the OB Curtis Water Treatment Plant in Mississippi after a broken pump led to water quality issues. 

And while accidents may lead to environmental disasters, so too can intentional acts. With physical and cyberattacks on critical infrastructure like the U.S. power grid reaching the highest levels ever, cybersecurity professionals are using intrusion detection technology to protect data monitoring systems from manipulation and segmenting networks to ensure a successful attack does not take down the entire system. 

If a disaster does occur, scientists and technologists can lean on innovative tools that can lessen its environmental impact and improve emergency response. 

Hazardous chemicals can be neutralized before they’re released by adding other chemicals to them that produce a less toxic substance. Contaminated equipment and materials can be decontaminated by liquifying or solidifying the contaminant or by cleaning the materials with special substances. 

After the BP oil spill in 2010, which sent 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists cleaned the area, in part, by releasing microorganisms into the water. Through a process known as bioremediation, these microbes ate the oil, using it as an energy source and helping to breakdown the harmful chemicals. 

Real-time data is crucial in mitigating further devastation in disasters. Drones, satellites, and emergency response robots provide critical information by surveying damage, creating maps of disaster zones, and detecting substances hazardous to humans and the environment. 

These tools were critical in managing the effects of the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan. After an earthquake and subsequent tsunami damaged the cooling system at the plant and released large quantities of radioactive materials, drones and response robots helped identify the cause and scale of the disaster without further risking human life. 

Capitol Technology University has a variety of programs that can prepare you to help prevent and minimize the environmental effects of disasters. If you’re ready to take on this challenge, check out our degrees and opportunities connected to critical infrastructure, construction and facilities, and occupational safety and health.  

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