Volcano Preparedness: Getting Ready to Blow!

Did you know that September is National Preparedness Month? My posts this month are going to focus on various natural disasters and how to be ready to weather the storms. Up first – volcanoes!

Volcanic Geography

There are over 160 volcanos within the United States alone with most centered around the western coast in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, Wyoming, Hawaii and the western islands – find the full list here. You can find a list of all the active volcanoes around the world here.

Last week the world learned how to pronounce Bárðarbunga as word spread that another Icelandic volcano was ready to blow. We all remember when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in 2010 spreading ash miles into the air and causing airlines to shut down flights in Europe for 6 days out of fear that the ash would ruin the jet engines.

Baroarbunga on map

Bárðarbunga is part of a system of volcanos in the center of Iceland which lay beneath a massive glacier. Seismologists detected over 3,000 earthquakes in the region, a forewarning of a future eruption. Indeed on Monday the 8/28 Bárðarbunga erupted, and had a second eruption a few days later on 8/31. While these eruptions were nothing that those experienced in 2010, Iceland still banned flights within 6,000 feet of the peak on the 31st for a few hours until it was determined that no ash had been released and air travel remained safe. You can read more about the Bárðarbunga volcano via Vox’s excellent coverage here and here. And even catch a livecam of the volcano.

image courtesy of the BBC

image courtesy of the BBC

Iceland wasn’t the only hot zone this last week, however. Mount Tavurvur’s Rabaul volcano in Papua New Guinea also erupted on August 29, 2014, spreading a plume of smoke and ash 18km into the air.  4,000 people in the town of Rabaul were evacuated in anticipation of the storm, and the rest were warned to stay indoors. This eruption is causing changes in flight patterns, with Qantas airlines rerouting planes to avoid the smoke and ash. Others are concerned for the fate of agriculture nearby as ash blankets the land, similar to a previous Rabaul eruption in 1994 devastated the area.

taurvur volcano

Tavurvur imageImages via @hhnamani

Health Implications

What are the health effects of a volcanic eruption? Most are secondary to the ash and smoke, while one must also be cognizant of potential harm from structural damage after the eruption. The USGS provides a great deal of information on these health hazards.

Respiratory symptoms:

  • Nasal irritation/discharge, throat irritation
  • Dry cough
  • Those with prior respiratory illness may develop severe bronchitis, shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing
  • Studies are currently underway to see if exposure to free crystalline silica in the volcanic ash may lead to silicosis long-term
  • If over 50 micrograms/m^3 of silica exposure is anticipated, the USGS states that the risk of silicosis should not be ignore

Eye symptoms:

  • Foreign particles in eye
  • Painful, itchy, bloodshot
  • Sticky discharge, tearing
  • Corneal abrasions
  • Acute conjunctivitis

Precautions for general public and public-service workers

  • Wear protective clothing and high-efficiency dust masks. (See Recommended Masks, from the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network (http://www.dur.ac.uk/claire.horwell/ivhhn/guidelines/masks/masks.html).
  • Masks and clothing should be made available and easily accessible in preparation for and during ash fall conditions.
  • If no approved mask is available, a fabric mask improvised from handkerchiefs, cloth, or clothing will filter out the larger ash particles which may contribute to throat and eye irritation. Dampening the fabric with water will improve its effectiveness.
  • Patients with chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma are advised to stay inside and avoid unnecessary exposure to ash.
  • Handle the ash in open, well-ventilated areas, and wet the dust whenever possible to prevent its movement.
  • In fine-ash environments, wear goggles or corrective eyeglasses instead of contact lenses to protect eyes from irritation.
  • Keep all doors closed when there is a heavy accumulation of ash.
  • Personnel not essential to the emergency should be kept inside and made to strictly observe all safety precautions during cleanup.
  • Remember that vehicular and industrial accidents are more likely to occur because of reduced visibility. Keep a proper distance between vehicles when driving.

Modified from, FEMA, 1984

Children face the same hazards from the suspension of ash as other age groups, but their exposure may be increased because they are physically smaller and are less likely to adopt reasonable, prudent, preventive measures to avoid unnecessary exposure to ash. After the ash fall from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, the following recommendations were offered to the public by the Mount St. Helens Technical Information Network:

  • Keep children indoors when ash is visible indoors.
  • Children should be advised against strenuous play or running when as is in the air, since exertion leads to heavier breathing, drawing small particles more deeply into the lungs.
  • Communities in heavy ash fall areas may wish to organize day-care programs to reduce the economic burden of working parents.
  • If children must be outdoors when ash is present in the air, they should wear a mask, preferably one approved by NIOSH. Many masks, however, are designed to fit adults rather than children.
  • Small children may at times swallow ash, and evidence suggests that ingestion of ash is not a hazard to the health of children and adults.
  • Children should be prevented from playing in areas where ash is deep on the ground or piled up, especially if they are likely to roll in the ash.
  • More frequent cleaning of home interior areas where children play will minimize the amount of indoor ash exposure in areas of heavy past or future ash falls.

This review from Occup Environ Med in 2006 details other health hazards of volcanoes.

hazards 1 hazards 2


Additionally you can print this pamphlet from the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network.

Community Preparedness

FEMA’s Ready.Gov site offers these tips to those preparing for a volcanic eruption:

Before the eruption put together an Emergency Supply Kit with non-perishable food, a battery-powered or hand-cranked radio, flashlights, and batteries. Also be sure to make a Family Emergency Plan so you will know how to contact each other in the case that your loved ones are not all together when an emergency occurs.

During the eruption:

  • Follow evacuation orders to avoid flying debris, hot gases, lateral blast and lava flow
  • Be aware of mudflows, look upstream before crossing a bridge and do not cross if a mudflow is approaching
  • Avoid river valleys and low lying areas
  • Help neighbors who may require special assistance

If you are unable to evacuate be sure to protect yourself from falling ash by:

  • Remaining indoors with doors, windows and ventilation closed until the ash settles
  • Wear long sleeved shirts, long pants, goggles and eyeglasses (NOT contact lenses)
  • Use a dust mask or hold a damp cloth over your face to help your breathing
  • Stay away from areas downwind of the volcano
  • Clear heavy ash from flat or low pitched roofs and rain gutters
  • avoid running car or truck engines which can stir up ash that can clog engines, damage parts and stall vehicles. If you must drive, don’t go over 35mph

If you live an area prone to volcanoes it pays to be prepared! Build your plans today!

Report written by Vidya Eswaran

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