The Health Hazards of Volcanic Ash
Volcanic ash is formed during a volcanic eruption. The tiny ash particles are made up of a mixture of fine rock fragments, minerals and glass and can travel great distances when blown by the wind. In some areas, ash exposure may be unavoidable due to wind patterns that can carry volcanic ash to populated areas. Due to their size, they can be inhaled deep into the lungs which could potentially cause respiratory problems.
The acid coating that is present on freshly fallen ash is quickly removed by rain which may then go on to pollute the local water supplies. It can also damage vegetation, leading to crop failure.
Symptoms of Ash Exposure
The symptoms that a person exposed to ash may experience will depend on many things such as the size of the particles that had been ingested, the concentration of ash in the air, the duration of exposure, the composition of silica and gas in the ash, the meteorological conditions, and the health of the affected people.
Common respiratory symptoms include:
- Nasal discharge
- Throat irritation
- Severe symptoms of bronchitis
- Airway irritation
- Discomfort when breathing
Eye symptoms may include:
- Feeling that you have something in your eye
- Painful, itchy, or reddened eyes
- Tearing or thickened discharge
- Corneal abrasions or scratches
- Acute conjunctivitis
The Effects on Your Health
It is not generally known as a major health hazard if the person has only been exposed to the volcanic ash short-term. It may however, cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat but nobody yet knows what the long-term effects volcanic ash may have on people’s health.
Those that are most at risk are children, the elderly, and those with heart and lung problems. Breathing in the volcanic ash can:
- Cause minor breathing problems
- Make heart and lung disease get worse; and
- Premature death
Following the volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, studies that were carried out on animals showed that the damage done by the ash was minor. This was still the case for animals that had been exposed to a lot of ash.
In very rare circumstances, long-term exposure to fine volcanic ash may lead to serious lung diseases. For this to happen, the ash must contain crystalline silica and the people must be exposed to the ash in high concentrations over many years.
Indirect Health Effects of Volcanic Ash
As well as the health effects mentioned above, it is important that we also look at the indirect impacts of large ashfall.
- On the Roads – Visibility will more than likely be reduced which may cause accidents. Not only are road markings covered up but the layers of ash can be very slippery.
- Effects on Power – Ashfall may lead to power cuts. Wet ash is conductive, so it is essential that safe operating procedures are stringently followed when cleaning power supply equipment.
- Effects on Water – The local water supply can become contaminated. Small, open water supplies such as domestic water tanks with roof drainage are especially vulnerable to volcanic ashfall. While the risk of toxicity is low, the pH may be reduced or chlorination inhibited. There may also be water shortages following ashfall due to extra water demands for clean-up.
- Effects on Sanitation – Large ashfall may temporarily disable municipal sanitation systems which can lead to increased disease in the affected areas.
- Roof Collapse Risk – The weight of the ash can cause roofs to collapse which can cause serious injury or death.
- Animal Health – If the ash is coated in hydrofluoric acid, the ash can be very toxic to grazing animals.
Minimizing the Risks of Volcanic Ash
As we mentioned earlier, because the ash particles are so small, they can be breathed deep into your lungs. For this reason you should not breathe it in if you can help it.
- Dust masks or filter masks should be worn when outside
- You can wet the ash to reduce airborne disruption of the particles once they have settled
- Protect your eyes with goggles or glasses but avoid wearing contact lenses
- Those that we mentioned above that were most at risk should take special care to limit their exposure to the ash
- Keep all windows and doors closed, stay indoors when possible and avoid strenuous outdoor activities, like jogging, cycling or heavy yard work.
- Cover bare skin to prevent irritation from prolonged contact with particles
- Stay tuned into your local radio station or television for the latest weather reports for information about the air quality in your area
- Take special care when driving, as reduced visibility often occurs and increases the risk of traffic accidents
- If you experience any symptoms that you believe is due to exposure to the ash, speak with your doctor as soon as you can.