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Environmental disasters like tsunamis cause lasting health impacts

Environmental disasters leave more than just physical destruction in their wake. Natural catastrophes like tsunamis can also leave lasting impacts on the health of the individuals exposed to them, according to a new study from UNC Chapel Hill.

Indonesian tsunami 

In collaboration with researchers from Indonesia, the experts found that women who were residing along the coast of Aceh, Indonesia during the devastating 2004 tsunami have lower cortisol levels even 14 years after the event. 

This is in stark contrast to women from neighboring coastal communities that were spared from the tsunami’s direct impact.

Prolonged stress

Cortisol is a critical stress hormone generated by our adrenal glands. It typically surges in our system in response to stress, acting as a trigger for the “fight or flight” response. 

However, an unrelenting elevation in stress levels can lead to a malfunctioning hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. 

What this study reveals is a clear connection between prolonged stress from the tsunami and a “burnout” of the HPA-axis. This burnout is seen as persistently low cortisol levels over an extended period.

Elizabeth Frankenberg, one of the lead researchers, noted that these effects were greatest for women who reported elevated levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms for two years after the tsunami. 

STAR project

Alongside Duncan Thomas and Cecep Sumantri, Frankenberg leads an ongoing survey project named the Study of the Tsunami Aftermath and Recovery (STAR).

STAR’s unique approach involves tracking survivors of the Indonesian tsunami, some of whom were interviewed even before the disaster struck. The recent phase of their research required the collection of hair samples from adults, a full 14 years post-tsunami. 

“Ralph Lawton was a Duke undergraduate and Robertson Scholar when he went to Indonesia to collect the hair and establish the assay in our lab in Yogyakarta: he is incredibly impressive and the first author of the manuscript,” said Thomas.

Lingering stress

“An important finding is that people with low levels of cortisol are in worse physical and psycho-social health 14 years after the tsunami, evidence of the long reach of the stresses of the tsunami and its aftermath.”

This finding highlights the lingering nature of the stress induced by the tsunami and the challenges of its aftermath.

Study implications 

Frankenberg pointed out that visually, damage from the Indian Ocean tsunami looks remarkably similar to the damage from hurricanes and intense storms along the coast of North Carolina and other parts of the United States.

“Lessons learned from following people in Aceh over 20 years provides important insights into the likely longer-term impacts of climate change on populations in the U.S. and across the globe,” said Frankenberg.

The STAR project is supported by institutions like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, SurveyMETER (Indonesia), Harvard University, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of Southern California.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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