Environmental health in emergencies

Medical aspects

Doctor/nurse taking care of wounded person

The medical aspects of environmental health problems in emergencies involve taking care of the affected people. Often, very specific knowledge about the diagnosis and treatment of effects from hazardous substances is required.

The medical management of people following a disaster may involve some or all of the following activities:

  • first aid
  • assessment and triage of victims in order to prioritize treatment
  • decontamination of people exposed to chemicals or radioactive materials
  • diagnosis
  • special and general supportive medical care
  • monitoring and prophylaxis against infection
  • long-term follow-up
  • psychiatric or psychological support.

Where there is a large number of casualties, providing adequate care can be a logistical challenge that demands a high level of resources. The situation may completely overwhelm the capacity of local health-care facilities. It is therefore important to have a well-developed and well-rehearsed preparedness plans in place.

Adequate protection for health care providers against contamination and infection is also critically important for an effective medical response.

Chemicals and poisons

Specialist information and advice on the management of exposure to chemicals is available from poisons centres worldwide.

-World directory of poisons centres

Guidance on the diagnosis and management of poisoning can be found in the INTOX Databank.

– The International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS) INTOX Databank

Radioactive materials

In the case of radionuclear events, information and advice can be obtained from the WHO Radiation Health Programme, coordinating provision of technical assistance according to existing international assistance arrangements. The assistance is rendered via WHO REMPAN - a network of specialized centers for medical assistance and research on radiation emergency medicine and radiation epidemiology.

– The Radiation Emergency Medical Preparedness and Assistance Network (REMPAN)

– WHO BioDoseNet

– WHO Stockpile for Radio-Nuclear Emergencies

Long-term medical aspects

Once the acute phase is over, there may also be longer-term problems that need to be addressed. These include identifying and managing health problems resulting from trauma, injuries, internal organ damage or carcinogenic changes, and also the psychosocial impact of the emergency.

Key resources



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