April 16, 2010

Ash Cloud Could Cause Some Health Concerns

The volcanic eruption in Iceland that has put a halt to air traffic throughout much of Europe could also cause trouble for people with already significant breathing problems, according to the World Health Organization on Friday.

The agency has yet to establish what health risks could be involved with this specific eruption, but once the ash clouds settle the effects on health could be dangerous and widespread.

"Any particulate matter that is deposited, breathed into the lungs is dangerous to people so we are concerned about that but we don't have details yet," WHO spokesman Daniel Epstein said.

Particles emitted during volcanic eruptions are "very dangerous to health because these particles when inhaled can reach the peripheral regions of the bronchioles and lungs and can cause problems especially for people with asthma or respiratory problems," Epstein told Reuters.

A Scottish expert on respiratory diseases said that falling ash would unlikely cause serious harm throughout Britain as a very high exposure to the low-toxicity dust was needed to have an impact on people. Wind and other atmospheric events would dilute much of the particles resulting in very little reaching the ground, the expert added.

Although the ash cloud is still suspended high in the atmosphere, Epstein said once any of the particles settle near the ground health risks would increase and people with asthma and other breathing problems should remain indoors or wear masks if they must go out.

Some experts feel that the ash is far less problematic than cigarette smoke. The ash is made up of fine particles of fragmented volcanic rock. It is light gray to black and can be as fine as talcum powder. The ash can be breathed deep into the lungs and can cause irritation even in healthy people. But usually when the ash falls from a greater distance -- like from the cloud currently shadowing Europe -- the health effects would be mostly minimal, experts say.

Britain's Health Protection Agency said volcanic particles that may settle on the ground was likely not to cause serious harm. It felt people with respiratory problems like bronchitis and asthma may experience more symptoms that usual, such as a dry cough, sore throat and itchy eyes. It advised people to carry their inhalers or medicines with them when on the go.

Still, Epstein said Europeans who go outside might want to wear a mask, just to be safe. He said WHO doesn't fully understand the risks to health associated with ash clouds and was studying it to learn more.

Professor Didier Houssin, deputy head of the French health ministry, said authorities were watching the ash plume and assessing weather patterns. Wind and rain will play a factor in which way the plume travels and how much, if any, ash falls to the ground.

"For the time being, we don't see any consequences for health... and have no particular recommendations to make for the public," Houssin said.

Colin Macpherson, a specialist in Earth sciences at Durham University, northeastern England, said the plume was being spread at an average height of some 20,000 feet.

"It's having no health impact on us down at this level," he said. "The good thing is that it is being blown about by fairly strong winds at the moment. It's rather like strong waves acting on an oil slick, dispersing the plume."


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