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Volcanic Ash and Asthma - 10 Steps To Protect Yourself

Published on May 10, 2010 with 3 comments

It is hard to believe, but the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano in Iceland is still erupting. Tons and tons of volcanic ash are being released daily into the atmosphere and it is being carried by the wind across the Atlantic, threatening not only air travel for Europeans, but posing potential health hazard for those with respiratory diseases including asthma, emphysema or bronchitis.

Even though the majority of ash is at least 10,000 feet high in the atmosphere, significant quantities of ash and dust eventually falls to earth. This volcanic ash is composed of fine particles of fragmented volcanic rock. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is the ‘fine particulate matter’ measuring less than 10 microns that has the potential to create respiratory symptoms. The WHO estimates that about 25% of the particles are less than 10 microns in size, which would mean that people with asthma, emphysema or bronchitis may be susceptible to irritation if and when these minute ash particles are inhaled.

The WHO says in a statement that the plume itself does not pose a health threat as long as the ash particles remain in the upper atmosphere. “However, when it reaches ground level, and if it is in high concentration, the ash may cause health effects - but these are likely to be minimal.” it adds.

Respiratory symptoms from the inhalation of volcanic ash depend on a number of factors. These include airborne concentration of total suspended particles, proportion of small, breathable particles in the ash, frequency and duration of exposure, presence of free crystalline silica and volcanic gases or aerosols mixed with the ash, meteorological conditions, preexisting health conditions, and the use of respiratory protective equipment.

Acute respiratory symptoms upon inhalation of volcanic ash may include:

  -  nasal irritation and discharge

  -  throat irritation and sore throat

  -  dry coughing

  -  bronchitis symptoms, including cough, increased sputum production, wheezing, or shortness of breath

  -  airway irritation of people with asthma or bronchitis with subsequent shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing

  -  difficulty breathing

These short-term effects are not considered harmful for people without existing respiratory conditions, however these symptoms can be quite severe in those with asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or other preexisting lung conditions.

The American Lung Association has published the following guidelines for those potentially exposed to volcanic ash or dust:

  1.  Stay indoors.

  2.  Do not smoke and avoid secondhand smoke.

  3.  Drink plenty of fluids to loosen mucus and help you cough.

  4.  Refrain from all outdoor exercise if particle pollution is visible. Reduce or eliminate indoor activity.

  5.  Use a High Efficiency Particle (HEPA) filter in your forced air furnace. Using a HEPA air purifier may also prove beneficial.

  6.  If you take medications, put them in a convenient place. It is important to continue taking your medicines. Medications you need for an acute episode should be readily available. If you do not have any medications, but feel that you might need them, call your physician. Make sure you have clear instructions from your physician as to what to do if your lung condition suddenly worsens.

  7.  Assume that your lung condition may deteriorate and contact your physician as soon as any problem develops. Do not allow a respiratory condition to linger, especially if there is a high concentration of ash particles.

  8.  Utilize air quality monitoring systems to determine the safety of the air quality in your area each day.

  9.  A paper, gauze surgical, or non-toxic dust mask may be helpful. Moistening the mask with a solution of baking soda and water may improve the filtration of irritating particles. ***If you find it difficult to breathe with the mask on, remove it immediately. A dust mask with an N-95 rating is most highly recommended for ash protection. If you don’t have a mask available, use a damp handkerchief.

  10.  Close doors, windows and dampers. Place damp towels at door thresholds and other draft sources; tape drafty windows.

While these suggestions are intended especially for persons suffering from respiratory conditions (asthma, emphysema, bronchitis), they are also useful for normally healthy people during episodes of volcanic haze.


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