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Ash in the lungs

Andrea King

Ash in the lungs
The fine particles in volcano ash are harmful to respiratory health. (Picture by Lennox Devonish)

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Officials have been cautioning us about inhaling the dust, but people with respiratory challenges will need to be even more careful as the volcanic ash continues to fall.

Even as it cannot be predicted when the eruptions of La Soufrière will end, the varying types of ash from each eruption can have different effects on people with different respiratory conditions.

“The acute and chronic health effects of volcanic ash depend upon particle size (particularly the proportion of respirable-sized material), the composition of the minerals, (including the crystalline silica content) and the physicochemical properties of the surfaces of the ash particles, all of which vary between volcanoes and even eruptions of the same volcano,” notes a report by Claire J. Horwell and Peter J. Baxter, writing on the respiratory health hazards of volcanic ash, in a review for volcanic risk mitigation, intended to inform volcanologists, health workers and others engaged in risk mitigation in areas of active volcanism worldwide.

While this is an understudied area, there is no doubt about the effects of the abrasive material the ash is.  It is an irritant to the eyes and lungs, as well as can contaminate water and cause damage to buildings, electrical systems and vegetation.

The Horwell-Baxter report also notes that some ash particles are so tiny, they can reach deep into the lungs, and with high exposure; even healthy people could feel discomfort and coughing. It also notes that short-term symptoms effects are not really harmful for those without pre-existing respiratory conditions.

Typical short-term symptoms include:

  • Throat irritation and sore throat, sometimes accompanied by dry coughing.
  • People with pre-existing chest complaints may develop severe bronchitis symptoms which last some days beyond exposure to ash (for example, hacking cough, production of sputum, wheezing, or shortness of breath).
  • Nasal irritation and discharge (runny nose).
  • Breathing becomes uncomfortable.
  • Airway irritation for people with asthma or bronchitis; common complaints of people with asthma include shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing.

The USA-based Volcanic Ashfall Impact Working Group advises that the most effective ways to keep ash out of your indoor environment, include:

  • Closing all doors and windows, where possible.
  • Sealing up large gaps and spaces to the outdoors. For example, use tape and plastic sheeting, or rolled-up towels.
  • Setting up a single entry/exit point for the building. Leave ashy clothes/shoes outside
  • Do not use any appliances (e.g., air conditioners) which suck in air from the outside. If the indoor environment is ashy, try to gently clean away the ash (e.g., using damp cloths)
  • Don’t use vacuum cleaners as they can blow out fine ash, back into the indoor space.

Experts advise the following during ash fall:

  • Stay calm.
  • Wear safety glasses and dust masks.
  • Stay indoors.
  • If outside, seek shelter as quickly as possible.
  • If you must drive, use low speeds and ensure you have plenty of windshield washer fluid.
  • Place damp towels at door thresholds and other draft sources.
  • Continue to protect your eyes, mouth, and nose until ash has settled and been cleaned up.

This article is brought to you by Better Health Magazine.