Health during volcanic eruptions

Teodoro B. Padilla — Medicine Matters

Posted at Jan 22 2018 04:17 PM

More than 24,000 people are still in evacuation centers as government remains on high alert in anticipation of a possible hazardous eruption of Mayon Volcano in Albay. The volcanic unrest has placed the entire province under a state of calamity to allow the local government to fully activate its disaster response systems.

On Sunday, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) reported that around 6,459 families or 24,381 residents from the municipalities of Camalig, Guinobatan, Daraga, Ligao, Malilipot, Sto. Domingo, and Tabaco are seeking shelter in 29 evacuation centers.

As in other extreme natural events, volcanic eruptions pose major health threats to individuals. Among the hazards associated with eruptions are pyroclastic explosions, hot ash releases, lava flows, and gas emissions. The World Health Organization (WHO) said that they could result in mediated trauma, crush-type injuries, burns and lacerations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explained that eruptions accompanied by floods, mudflows or lahars, power outages, drinking water contamination, and wildfires could have health consequences. Other health concerns include the spread of infectious disease, respiratory illness, and even vehicular accidents.

Volcanic eruptions also generate ash. Based on the seasonal wind pattern, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC) said that ashfall events are most likely to occur in the southwest side of the volcano.

The International Volcanic Health Hazard Network (IVHHN) said that ashfall could affect both healthy individuals and vulnerable groups. It explained that the influence of ashfall on individuals could vary depending on factors such as concentration of particles in the air, the proportion of fine particles in the ash, the frequency and duration of exposure, the presence of crystalline silica and volcanic gases or aerosols mixed with the ash, and meteorological conditions.

The IVHHN cautioned that fine ash particles could be breathed deep into the lungs. High exposure could lead to acute symptoms such as nasal irritation and throat irritation accompanied by dry coughing.

Individuals with history of lung concerns may also develop severe bronchitic symptoms such as coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath among others, while rare, long-term exposure to fine volcanic ash may lead to serious lung diseases.

Apart from lung problems, ash could cause skin reddening, irritation or secondary infection due to scratching.

Large ashfalls may also have indirect effect on health. Reduced road visibility or slippery roads could cause vehicular accidents. Some roads may also be rendered impassable, thus isolating communities that may be in need of help.

Apart from ash, the CDC said that heavy gases such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide could cause breathing problems. It cautions that people living in proximity of a volcano or who are in the low-lying areas downwind may be exposed to levels that may affect health. The CDC said that low levels of gases can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat. At higher levels, they can result in rapid breathing, headache, dizziness, swelling and spasm of the throat, and even suffocation.

Immediately after ashfall, the IVHHN encourages affected individuals to limit driving and to stay indoors, especially children, if possible. In reducing ash in the house, keep all doors and windows closed as much as possible. Affected individuals may also wear effective masks. If no masks are available, one may use a fabric mask improvised from cloth. Dampening the fabric with water will improve its ability to filter large ash particles. Goggles or corrective eyeglasses may be used to protect one’s eyes from fine ash irritation.

The IVHHN recommended that prior to ashfall, affected individuals must stock up on drinking water for a week’s supply. In cleaning up ashfall debris, lightly water down the ash deposits before they are removed by shovelling.

There are several ways to protect one’s self and family during volcanic eruptions. It is also important to follow the directions of local authorities and to stay updated with life-saving information they provide.


* Teodoro B. Padilla is executive director of the Pharmaceutical & Healthcare Association of the Philippines. Email the author or visit


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