Volcanic ash: does it or does it not pose health risks?



Does the volcanic ash from Eyjafjallajokull hovering over Europe present health risks to the population on the ground? I mean health risks aside from the increase in stress levels, not to mention blood pressure, of those who got stranded because of flight cancellations.

According to a World Health Organization (WHO) statement on April 16, as long as the volcanic ash stays in the upper atmosphere, the health risks for those who are on the ground are minimal. However, in case of ash fall, there are health risks to people on the ground.

What’s blowing in the wind?

The US Geological Survey gives a general description of volcanic ash:

Small jagged pieces of rocks, minerals, and volcanic glass the size of sand and silt (less than 2 millimeters (1/12 inch) in diameter) erupted by a volcano are called volcanic ash. Very small ash particles can be less than 0.001 millimeters (1/25,000th of an inch) across. Volcanic ash is not the product of combustion, like the soft fluffy material created by burning wood, leaves, or paper. Volcanic ash is hard, does not dissolve in water, is extremely abrasive and mildly corrosive, and conducts electricity when wet.

Let us take a look at what is in this particular flying ash. Ongoing analysis by WHO shows that the Eyjafjallajokull ash consists about 25% of fine particulate matter smaller than 10 microns. Particles of this size, when inhaled, can penetrate deeper into the lungs.

Who is susceptible?

People suffering from chronic respiratory conditions like asthma, emphysema or bronchitis are susceptible to fine particulate matter. The usual preventive measures to mitigate respiratory problems are recommended including staying indoors, wearing protective masks, and avoiding strenuous physical exercise.

According to statement by Dr Maria Neira, Director of Public Health and Environment Department at WHO

“Particulate matter is identified according to its diameter. The small particulates less than 10 microns in size are more dangerous because they can penetrate deeper into the lungs. Since the ash concentration may vary from country to country depending on the wind and air temperatures, our advice is to listen to local public health officials for the best guidance for individual situations,” says Neira. “If people are outside and notice irritation in their throat and lungs, a runny nose or itchy eyes, they should return indoors and limit their outdoor activities.”

What should we do during ash fall?

Not all volcanic ash falls are the same just as no two volcanoes are the same. However, there are general guidelines from US Geological Survey for households, communities and businesses that in case of ash fall. The recommended lines of action are:

More details are available for downloading as pamphlets from the Volcanic Health Hazard Network (IVHHN):

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NOTE: The contents in this blog are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or a substitute for professional care. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional before making changes to any existing treatment or program. Some of the information presented in this blog may already be out of date.
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