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Volcanic eruptions and their impact on health

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Medicine Cabinet

LAVA SPEWS from the Mayon Volcano as it continues to erupt, as seen from Legazpi City, Albay on Jan. 23. A giant mushroom-shaped cloud shot up from the Philippines’ most active volcano on Jan. 22, darkening the skies and raining ash on surrounding communities. — AFP

ON THE evening of Jan. 13, Mayon Volcano began spewing ash and lava, causing rocks to fall from its summit. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) has raised Alert Level 4 after the volcano spewed a giant ash column. It warned that a hazardous eruption may be imminent within days. People have been strongly advised to stay away from the eight-kilometer Extended Danger Zone (EDZ), wear facemasks, and stay indoors. To date, more than 24,000 residents of communities near Mayon Volcano have been evacuated.

The Philippines’ most active volcano — which has what is considered the world’s most perfect volcanic cone — has had more than 30 recorded eruptions since 1616. Its most destructive, which buried the town of Cagsawa and killed approximately 1,200, occurred in 1841.

Volcanic eruptions can have a wide-ranging impact on health, which is arguably more varied than any other kind of natural disaster, according to “The health hazards of volcanoes and geothermal areas,” a 2006 paper published in the scientific journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The paper noted that volcanoes can pose health hazards between, as well as during, eruptions.

The World Health Organization (WHO) lists the following health impacts of volcanic eruptions: trauma and injuries (due to falling rocks and debris), skin burns and irritation (caused by ash and lava), gastrointestinal problems (due to ash-contaminated water and food), lung problems (due to ash and toxic gases), and eye irritation (due to ash).

The health impact is minimal in case of lava flows since the lava path is predictable and the progression is slow. This gives the people time to evacuate, according to the WHO. To mitigate the risks and minimize casualties, the Geneva-based organization stressed that early warning systems, timely and adequate inter-sectoral interventions and coordination system need to be in place.

The WHO offers the following tips to help people stay safe and protect their health during volcanic eruptions:

• Follow evacuation procedures;

• Stay indoors unless absolutely necessary;

• Avoid low-lying areas and the areas downwind from the volcano;

• For children, the elderly, and people who have respiratory problems, the use of certified N95-equivalent masks are recommended, as these block small particles of ash;

• For the general population, a simple surgical mask is adequate;

• Wear protective eye gear, such as goggles; and,

• Make sure the water and food you consume are safe and not contaminated by ash.

With the possible eruption of Mayon Volcano, affected residents are urged to stay vigilant and follow all warnings and safety procedures issued by authorities. The WHO said that volcanic eruption could have a potential lethal impact in the absence of mitigation measures.

The author is the executive director of Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP). Medicine Cabinet is a PHAP column that aims to promote awareness on public health and healthcare-related issues. PHAP and its member companies represent the research-based pharmaceutical and healthcare industry. For comments and inquiries, e-mail the author at medicinecabinet@phap.org.ph.