Public Health

Ash Poses More Risk For Animals Than Humans

Smoke and steam rises from the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland. i i

Smoke and steam rises from the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland. Iceland Coastguard/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Iceland Coastguard/AP
Smoke and steam rises from the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland.

Smoke and steam rises from the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland.

Iceland Coastguard/AP

Unless you're a high-flying bird, you probably don't have to worry too much about health problems from the eruption of a volcano in Iceland that has grounded flights in Britain and several Nordic countries.

Sure, a cloud of ash can wreak some kind of havoc on jet engines, but what about you?

Volcanic ash does contains tiny particles of pulverized rock and glass, and, often, some toxic chemicals. But the U.K. Health Protection Agency (HPA) told Brits not to worry, saying in a statement that the cloud from the recent eruption isn't a significant health risk to the public because it's "trapped" in the atmosphere at a high altitude.

"Even if the plume does drop towards the ground the concentrations of particles at ground level are not likely to cause significant effects on health," the HPA said.

Right now it's hard to know how long this eruption could last. Some are over in 10 minutes, while others can last a decade, Clive Oppenheimer, a vulcanologist at Cambridge University and co-author of a paper on the health hazards of volcanoes, told Shots. This one has "been going on for three weeks now, but it switched from a side-eruption to one with a more violent character at the summit," he said. "It could very well run for a few days but it's too early to say really."

Bertthora Thorbjarnardottir, a geophysicist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office told Shots that unlike in Britain and the rest of Northern Europe, a lot of ash is reaching the ground near the volcano in southeast Iceland, though the affected area is small. She says this ash could affect people's respiratory systems in the worst-hit areas.

"If the ash is finer than 10 microns in size it can penetrate quite deep into the lungs," Cambridge's Oppenheimer. So, he said, if the ash fall gets particularly thick, people should be advised to wear face masks or stay indoors.

Thorbjarnardottir said that there's no such advisory out yet, but farmers were told keep their livestock indoors so they don't ingest the falling ash. It could poison them.

Oppenheimer told us "when [volcanic] ash is traveling through the atmosphere and it mixes up with volcanic gases, it can carry toxic elements such as fluoride, and can contaminate water supplies and pastures." Also, grazing livestock can swallow toxic ash particles that land on food, so caring for the animals is an "immediate concern," he said. "It's not a good financial picture in Iceland anyways, so losing a lot of cattle would be bad news."

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