For centuries, men and women have worked to advance their lives and the world around them. They have built communities and developed countries using natural and man made resources. But with almost every ingenious advancement in man made resources, there is an attendant risk of disaster.
Man made disasters have a darker, more morbid edge than tragic natural disasters because they involve some type of human negligence, intent, or error. Whether the error comes from one person, a group of people, or a machine made by man, it is a disaster nonethless. It takes human lives, destroys homes, and leaves the world a bit weaker. All man made disasters are devastating, but these 10 man made disasters are the most destructive in history.
10. Libby Asbestos Contamination
In 1919, Libby, Montana was a small town and a vermiculite mining site for W.R. Grace. It grew and became a town filled with miners and their families, who unknowingly lived among asbestos, a deadly toxin that causes respiratory illnesses and cancer. The asbestos ridden air sickened children and adults. Remnants from the plant were used to make driveways, playgrounds, and even the track field at the local schools. Mine workers brought home asbestos on their work clothing, contaminating and sickening their families.
More than 1,000 people were sickened and over 200 people were killed due to the plant’s high level of asbestos. Eventually the mine was closed in 1990. W.R. Grace went bankrupt after more than 270,000 asbestos-related lawsuits were filed by the townspeople. The ramifications of the toxic material remains influential in the town and causes thousands of people to seek medical help for asbestos-related illnesses at the local health clinic.
9. Love Canal
In the 1940s, Hooker Chemical began dumping industrial waste into an abandoned canal. They covered the waste with dirt and in 1953, sold the land to a local school board for $1. The 99th Street School was built, much to the delight of the small neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y. But the delight did not last long.
Two years later, city construction began and construction workers began digging to install sewer lines for low-income housing. The construction broke canal walls, exposed chemical drums, and leaked toxic waste around the town.
The chemicals caused severe health problems such as asthma, miscarriages, and mental disabilities. By 1978, 56% of children born between 1974 and 1978 had birth defects. With more then 80 toxins flowing from the canal, Love Canal was declared the first federal disaster area from man-made causes and residents were relocated by the federal government.
8. Gulf Oil Spill
On April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven people were immediately killed, however more danger lingered below the surface of the water. The BP pipeline was spewing oil and gas into the Gulf.
Located about 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the ocean, the pipeline leaked an estimated 31.9 million barrels – over 130 million gallons – of oil. It took 87 days for BP to cap the pipe and contain the leak. The damage to the Gulf of Mexico was done. Streams of oil lay across the water and thick layers of oil drifted in a long 22-mile stream across the Gulf.
Various wildlife was immediately impacted, such as fish, pelicans, and turtles. Estimates indicated that thousands of animals that lived within or around the Gulf of Mexico were killed. Shrimp fisheries were closed, affecting the economy of several areas along the Gulf coast.
7. North Pacific Garbage Patch
The North Pacific Garbage Patch is a collection of debris that is floating in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Due to the nature of the currents in the Gyre, the water (and debris) continuously circulates around a central point, making it impossible for anything to escape. The majority of the garbage patch is plastic, since plastic is non-biodegradable.
So what’s the trouble with a bunch of floating plastic in the middle of the ocean? For one, the thick layer of debris prevents algae and plankton from getting enough sunlight so they are unable to create nutrients. Without the algae and plankton jellyfish cannot survive. Without jellyfish, ocean animals such as turtles can’t survive. Without ocean animals like turtles, larger predators like sharks can’t survive. And just like that an entire food web is put at risk. Besides the food web being at risk, ocean animals are incapable of bypassing the garbage patch. Animals such as turtles and seals become tangled in plastic and nets and suffocate.
You might think this garbage patch is just some small spot of plastic that no one will ever see. In fact, the North Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to be 270,000 sq mi. That’s the size of Texas! This isn’t the only garbage patch that exists. There are a total of five other ocean gyres that are slowly beginning to collect debris.
6. Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Disaster
When a massive tsunami hit Japan in March of 2011, over 20,000 people died and over 300,000 were left homeless. One day after the tsunami, the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant began to leak, resulting in a nuclear meltdown of three of the plant’s nuclear reactors. Radioactive material was released into the air and the water.
Due to the devastation of the tsunami and the radioactive material leaking into the water supply, Japan began to monitor water supply and foods. In July of 2011 the food supply became contaminated, leaving only a few foods available to the area.
Despite the disastrous conditions, the Japanese government managed to keep the radiation contained thus keeping cancer and death rates from radioactive materials to a minimum.
5. Three Mile Island Nuclear Explosion
Dauphin County, Pa was home to the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station and the largest nuclear power accident in the United States. On March 28, 1979, a relief valve was stuck open, leading to a partial nuclear core meltdown of one of the two reactors. This allowed massive amounts of radioactive gases and radioactive iodine to seep into the environment.
Despite the insistence from Pennsylvania government leaders that no one was harmed from the melt down, more than 2,400 residents have filed class-action lawsuits due to death and disease related to radioactive materials. Millions of dollars in damages were paid by the owners of Three Mile Island to area residents whose children were born with birth defects.
4. Exxon Valdez Oil Spill
While en route from Alaska to Los Angeles, California, the Exxon Valdez tanker ran into the Bligh Reef. The collision took place on March 24, 1989 and spilled 10.9 million gallons of crude oil within six hours of hitting the Bligh Reef.
Despite immediate attempts to clean up the spill, animals and vegetation within the area were severely damaged. Over 11,000 miles of ocean were covered by the spill and it is estimated that 2,8000 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250,000 seabirds, 250 bald eagles, and 22 killer whales died due to the spill. To date, the oil still affects the Alaskan shoreline and the overall number of animals that have re-inhabited the spill area is extremely low.
3. The Great Smog
A wave of cold weather made its way into London during December of 1952, causing residents to burn high amounts of coal to keep their homes warm. The coal emissions weren’t an issue until a thick layer of fog rolled into the city. The dense fog stuck around from December 5th to the 9th. With the fog keeping the smoke from the coal and the city emissions trapped over London, the air turned deadly.
Four thousand people were killed due to the toxic air. In the next few weeks, about 8,000 more people died from respiratory problems. The Great Smog prompted Parliament to pass two Clean Air Acts.
2. Union Carbide Gas Leak
On the night of December 2, 1984 as people slept in the city of Bhopal, India, the Union Carbide pesticide plant began leaking 27 tons of methyl isocyanate. The toxic gas spread through the city, killing thousands of people within seconds. Pregnant women who breathed the gas aborted without notice, losing their children within hours of breathing the air. Thousands watched as their friends and neighbors foamed at the mouth and began vomiting until they passed away. Those that survived experienced cancer, psychological damage, neurological disorder, and blindness.
Despite the severity and morbidness of the event, Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson refused to pay the entirety of compensation for the survivors. Eventually he was charged with manslaughter by the government of India, however he was living in the United States at the time and the U.S. government refused to extradite him so that he could face trial in India.
1. The Chernobyl Disaster
The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, located near the town of Pripyat, Ukraine suffered an explosion in one of the nuclear reactors during a system test on April 26, 1986. An unexpected power surge triggered an attempted emergency shutdown that then caused a reactor vessel to rupture and explode. A fire began and sent a cloud of radioactive materials into the atmosphere. The toxic cloud lingered over parts of western Soviet Union and Europe.
Dozens of workers at the Chernobyl Plant were immediately killed, however the families in the nearby city of Pripyat were not immediately evacuated. Within several hours townspeople become very ill. Two people died by the evening and 52 people were hospitalized. The next day the town began evacuation. Each following day, the zone of evacuation grew and expanded to 20 miles outside of Chernobyl.
Despite the attempts to stop the leaking fumes from the reactor, the toxic gases continued to build in the air around Chernobyl. High levels of radiation contaminated areas of the Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Pripyat remains uninhabited to date and those that lived in the most radioactive areas still suffer effects from the toxins. High levels of cancers in children and adults are still being treated decades after the Chernobyl disaster.