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The Health Impact of Volcanic Ash: A Multidimensional Analysis

Volcanic ash, a natural pollution, poses a risk to health with respiratory, eye, and skin effects, as well as indirect effects such as food and water pollution.

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Volcanic ash, consisting of fragmented rock particles with a diameter less than 2 mm, constitutes a form of natural pollution that is often overlooked. Produced during volcanic eruptions, these ashes may initially be hot but cool down as they move away from the volcano. The hazards they pose are not limited to their thermal nature; they also pose a risk to human and environmental health.

These ashes may be coated with a thin acidic layer, accelerating the deterioration of respiratory and ocular conditions, while also having indirect effects on water and food supply systems.

Respiratory, ocular and skin consequences

Fine inhaled particles can infiltrate deeply into the lung alveoli, causing acute respiratory symptoms such as coughing and irritation of the respiratory tract. For individuals with a history of respiratory or cardiac diseases, exposure to volcanic ash can exacerbate their health conditions, sometimes long after the initial exposure period.

Furthermore, prolonged exposure to ashes containing crystalline silica can lead to an increased risk of pulmonary silicosis, a chronic disease.

Ashes can also have an adverse effect on vision, causing ocular irritations resulting from corneal abrasion or the development of conjunctivitis. It is therefore strongly advised that contact lens wearers refrain from wearing them during periods of ashfall.

Skin Effects Although less common, skin irritations can occur, particularly when the ashes have an acidic composition. Scratching can lead to secondary skin infections.

Indirect repercussions

Beyond the direct health effects, volcanic ash can disrupt road signs, reduce visibility, and increase accident risks. They can also contaminate local water sources, thereby compromising the quality of drinking water and water supply systems. Moreover, wet ash conducts electricity, endangering personnel responsible for electrical maintenance. The accumulation of ash can also cause structural collapses, particularly roofs, and increase the risk of falls during cleaning.

Preventive recommendations

To minimize risks, the use of a high-efficiency dust mask and protective goggles is highly recommended. Reducing outdoor physical activities can also help limit exposure. It is also crucial to have reserves of potable water and to thoroughly wash all vegetables before consumption. When cleaning ash deposits, it is advised to lightly moisten them to reduce dispersion, while avoiding excessive dampness that could lead to collapses.

In Conclusion:

The threat posed by volcanic ash is serious and multidimensional, requiring a preventive and informed approach to minimize health and environmental risks.

Philippe Casanova

Specialist in occupational medicine and forensic medicine.