Monday, April 26, 2010

Volcanic ash cloud poses no health threat

The volcano that has critically injured the airline industry poses no real threat to human health.

We like to celebrate good health news here at Justmeans, so I’m pleased to say that despite the billion or so dollars that pesky Icelandic volcano has caused the airline industry, it apparently isn’t causing a whole lot of health problems for humans. A report from the World Health Organization (WHO) says that because the bulk of the ash is so high in the atmosphere, it isn’t expected to cause a lot of trouble on the ground - unless winds shift and cause localized, regional problems.

According to the WHO, it’s the size of the particulate matter of the ash cloud that counts. The most dangerous particulates are those that are smaller than 10 microns in size, because they can reach deep into the lungs and embed there. That can potentially cause far-reaching health problems. About one-fourth of all the particulate matter of the Icelandic ash cloud is that small, according to Dr Maria Neira, Director of Public Health and Environment Department at WHO.

Still, the WHO is encouraging people, especially those with chronic respiratory conditions like asthma, emphysema or bronchitis, to keep a close eye on the ash cloud and an ear tuned to their local health authorities. "Since the ash concentration may vary from country to country depending on the wind and air temperatures, our advice is to listen to local public health officials for the best guidance for individual situations," says Neira. "If people are outside and notice irritation in their throat and lungs, a runny nose or itchy eyes, they should return indoors and limit their outdoor activities."

The ash cloud was born last week, when a volcano belched a mass of smoke and ash into the air. That cloud drifted over much of Europe and grounded thousands of flights. Analysis has shown that the ash cloud particles consist mostly of quartz and glass. Health authorities have also found aluminium, silica and oxygen, as well as some fluoride.

Officials with the World Health Organization say the concentration of particles that may reach ground level is likely to be low and should not cause serious harm. Most of the ash that might reach the ground is likely to be too big to inhale into the lungs, but could irritate eyes, nose and throat. Remaining indoors will diminish the risk of these symptoms, since closed doors and windows will partly prevent penetration of the larger, irritating particles inside buildings. How has the ash cloud affected you?

Photo Credit: NASA Goddard

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