What Are the Health Risks of Volcanic Ash?

There are several live volcanoes around the world, and the eruptions that sometimes occur from this have led to concerns about the effect of volcanic ash on our health. Naturally, there is the risk of some respiratory damage when inhaling such matter, but how severe is it and should you be concerned? After the renowned Icelandic volcano eruption which occurred several years ago, more people are worried about how their health will be affected by such an event if it were to happen again. There is little publicity in the way of information about what people should do in such an emergency. Volcanic ash is formed of fine rock particles, minerals and glass. The ash is rough and mildly corrosive, and it doesn’t dissolve in water. When a volcano erupts, the ash can spread in the air for thousands of kilometres away, depending on the type of eruption and the wind speed. Because ash is made up of millions of microscopic particles and fragments, it can be inhaled deep into the lungs and lead to problems with one’s breathing. How damaging this is depends on a number of factors, including how often and for how long you were breathing in the ash, how big the particles were, and whether you also breathed in volcanic gases. If you have heart or lung problems already, this may make your situation worse.


Short-term exposure to volcanic ash isn’t known to be a major health hazard, although it can lead to eye, throat and nose irritation. However, researchers are unaware what the long-term effects are to people who have inhaled the ash. The risks are thought to be the same as those in people who breathe in smog, which can lead to increased risks of minor breathing problems, heart and lung diseases becoming worse, and premature death in severe cases. Volcanic ash is also known to cause skid conditions on the roads, create mudslides and clog the air intake of engines, leading to them stalling. However, after an eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980, studies were undertaken on animals to see what the effect was – researchers noted that there was only minor impact on them, even when they were exposed to a lot of ash. The main health outcome of that particular eruption was eye, nose and throat problems.

In order to minimise your risks, you should try not to breathe in deeply if you can avoid it to stop tiny particles from going deep into your lungs. If you can, use a dust or filter mask to minimise your exposure to the damaging ash and fragments. Those wil heart and lung problems, children and the elderly should take extra cautionary measures – this means keeping windows and doors closed, staying indoors where possible, and avoiding strenuous outdoor activities which will require them to breathe in more deeply. If you live in an area where the risk if higher, be sure to keep abreast of the news in your local area so that you can be sure of the air quality. If you think you’ve been affected by volcanic ash, you should speak to your GP who can advise you further on what to do next. Of course, there are more physical effects as well, such as heavy ash fall on roofs causing damage to the home which can lead to roofs falling in on people. This is something which should be checked at the time to assess any possible risk to those living in the home. However, falling ash isn’t yet known to cause any serious health problems to already healthy people.

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