Health Protection Agency
Publication date: October 2012
In recognition of the potential risk to the United Kingdom (UK) and Republic of Ireland (ROI), the Health Protection Agency together with national and international partners has set up a programme of work by which to ensure an effective response to any future volcanic eruptions.
A literature review on the potential health impacts of ash was carried out of clinical and epidemiological studies of affected populations worldwide. This was supplemented by reviews of the toxicological evidence on volcanic ash and of physicochemical parameters on which inferences about potential health effects may be based. Expert opinion was sought in areas of uncertainty.
A number of studies, though not all, showed that in the short-term volcanic ash may cause superficial effects such as irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin. Effects on breathing may include exacerbations of asthma and wheeze. Development of silicosis as a long-term effect of exposure to volcanic ash rich in crystalline silica is a biologically plausible consequence but so far no cases have been reported. In terms of physicochemical characteristics and toxicology, volcanic ash samples are very heterogeneous. There is some indication that volcanic ash is less toxic compared with particulates in ambient air; however, studies in this area are very limited.
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Last reviewed: 20 November 2012