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Narrow margin: Protection from volcanoes

David Meade
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Volcanoes can produce ash, toxic gases, flashfloods of hot water and debris called lahars, lava flows and fast-moving flows of hot gases and debris called pyroclastic flows. Some dangers from volcanoes can be predicted ahead of time while others may occur with little or no notice after an eruption. Each volcano and situation is unique.

Major health threats from a volcanic eruption

Volcanoes spew hot, dangerous gases, ash, lava and rock that are powerfully destructive. People have died from volcanic blasts. The most common cause of death from a volcano is suffocation. Volcanic eruptions can result in additional threats to health, such as floods, mudslides, power outages, drinking water contamination, and wildfires. Health concerns after a volcanic eruption include infectious disease, respiratory illness, burns, injuries from falls and vehicle accidents related to the slippery, hazy conditions caused by ash. When warnings are heeded, the chances of adverse health effects from a volcanic eruption are very low.

Volcanic ash

Exposure to ash can be harmful. It is highly dangerous to aircraft in flight. Infants, elderly people and people with respiratory conditions such as asthma, emphysema and other chronic lung diseases may have problems if they breathe in volcanic ash. Ash is gritty, abrasive, sometimes corrosive and always unpleasant. Small ash particles can abrade (scratch) the front of the eye. Ash particles may contain crystalline silica, a material that causes a respiratory disease called silicosis.


Most gases from a volcano quickly blow away. However, heavy gases such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide can collect in low-lying areas. The most common volcanic gas is water vapor, followed by carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Sulfur dioxide can cause breathing problems in both healthy people and people with asthma and other respiratory problems. Other volcanic gases include hydrogen chloride, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen fluoride. Amounts of these gases vary widely from one volcanic eruption to the next.

Although gases usually blow away rapidly, it is possible that people who are close to the volcano or who are in the low-lying areas downwind may be exposed to levels that may affect health. At low levels, gases can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. At higher levels, gases can cause rapid breathing, headache, dizziness, swelling and spasm of the throat and suffocation.

How to prepare

Be prepared either to shelter or to evacuate. Develop an evacuation plan and a sheltering plan for yourself, your family and others in your household. Review the plans and make sure that everyone understands them. If you haven’t already done so, put together an emergency supply kit. Supplies should include the following:

  • Flashlight and extra batteries
  • First aid kit and manual
  • Emergency food and water
  • Manual (non-electric) can opener
  • Essential medicines
  • Sturdy shoes
  • Respiratory (breathing) protection
  • Eye protection (goggles)
  • Battery-powered radio

Exposure to ash can harm your health, particularly the respiratory (breathing) tract. To protect yourself while you are outdoors or while you are cleaning up ash that has gotten indoors, use an N-95 disposable respirator (also known as an “air purifying respirator”). N-95 respirators can be purchased at businesses such as hardware stores. It is important to follow directions for proper use of this respirator. If you don’t have an N-95 respirator, you can protect yourself by using a nuisance dust mask as a last resort, but you should stay outdoors for only short periods while dust is falling. Nuisance dust masks can provide comfort and relief from exposure to relatively non-hazardous contaminants such as pollen, but they do not offer as much protection as an N-95 respirator.

Protecting yourself during ashfall

Stay inside, if possible, with windows and doors closed.

Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.

Use goggles to protect your eyes. If ash is continually falling, you may not be able to shelter indoors for more than a few hours because the weight of the ash could collapse the roof of your building and block air intakes into the building. Listen to authorities for advice on leaving the area when ashfall lasts more than a few hours.

Keep your car or truck engine switched off. Avoid driving in heavy ashfall. Driving will stir up ash that can clog engines and stall vehicles. If you do have to drive, keep the car windows up and do not operate the air conditioning system. Operating the air conditioning system will bring in outside air and ash.

Stay away from ashfall areas, if possible. Avoid contact with ash as much as you can. Keep your skin covered to avoid irritation from contact with ash.

If your drinking water has ash in it, use another source of drinking water, such as purchased bottled water, until your water can be tested.

Clear roofs of ash. Ash is very heavy and can cause buildings to collapse. Be very cautious when working on a roof. Ash can be slippery and make it easy to fall.

Volcanic eruptions may result in floods, landslides and mudslides, power outages and wildfires. The best advice is to evacuate well ahead of time.

Source: Volcanoes (and subsequent pages)

The views expressed in this article are entirely the writer's own.

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