What happens in our body when we inhale toxic gases from a volcano like La Palma

On April 14, 2010, the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull caused the closure of airspace in most of Europe for a week: up to 17,000 flights were canceled due to 250 million cubic meters of ash that were expelled into the atmosphere, reaching a height of 11 kilometers. More than a month later, on May 23, is when the eruption was declared as finished.

The consequences of volcanic activity, however, have dragged on for years. In 2016, a study published in the British Medical Journal by researchers from the University of Iceland indicated that the eruption had increased, three years later, the risk of phlegm, wheezing, eczema, back pain, and insomnia among the population most exposed to ash.

Perhaps the most affected were children. Another article published in 2018 in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology pointed out that minors exposed to volcanic ash, after three years, were more likely to experience respiratory symptoms, but also a higher level of anxiety. Differentiating between sexes, exposed children were at higher risk for headaches and sleep disturbances.

Nonetheless, Cristina Martinez, coordinator of the environment area of ​​the Spanish Society of Pulmonology and Thoracic Surgery (Separ), considers that the long-term consequences are not as serious as could be expected.

“It is known that people consumed more drugs to treat respiratory diseases such as bronchodilators, that there were more visits to the emergency room … But we do not have data on other consequences, such as whether or not the frequency of asthma among the population increased ”. Instead, the immediate effects imply a significant risk in vulnerable people, such as children, the elderly and those with chronic respiratory diseases.

The seismic activity that the island of La Palma has experienced since last September 11 has culminated in the eruption of Cumbre Vieja this Sunday, which has released between 6,000 and 9,000 tons of sulfur dioxide in a single day.

This gas can cause irritation and inflammation of the respiratory system, lung diseases and insufficiencies, alteration of protein metabolism, headaches and even anxiety, warns the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge. WHO recommends a maximum of 20 micrograms per cubic meter in 24 hours.

However, the biggest concern for the pulmonologist not gases such as sulfur derivatives or carbon dioxide but ashes, microscopic particles that have the same effect on health as pollution and that “have a much greater dispersion range than gases.” These are classified according to their size: less than 10 microns (PM10) or less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5).

Martínez compares the effect of these ashes with episodes of acute contamination. “In the short term they cause respiratory symptoms, cough, irritation of the upper airways, rhinitis, etc.. In a healthy population it may have little relevance, but in the most vulnerable it can decompensate the underlying disease and cause a major event ”.

The mask, to the rescue

Luckily, there is a simple form of prevention that we have been used to for some time: the mask. For the pulmonologist, it is vital to use it outdoors not only in the affected area and in the more than 5,000 evacuated people but throughout the island, due to the dispersion capacity of the ashes. It’s more, perhaps its use should be extended not only to all of La Palma, but to neighboring islands, such as El Hierro, La Gomera or Tenerife.

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