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Wildfire and Volcanic Ash Tips

Volcanoes can spew ash, a type of particulate matter air pollution, into the air for miles downwind of the eruption. Volcanic ash can be especially harmful to children, older adults and people with lung disease such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Exposure to volcanic ash can trigger asthma attacks and cause wheezing, coughing, and respiratory irritation in individuals with sensitive airways. The following guidelines will protect your lung health, and should be followed especially by those at highest risk, including: children and teens; pregnant women; the elderly; anyone with chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease or diabetes; and healthy adults who must work outdoors.

Follow these Tips to Protect Your Lungs from Volcanic Ash

General Guidelines:

  • Stay indoors.
  • Do not smoke. Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Check the air quality monitoring network to determine the safety of the air quality in your area each day: AirNow.gov.

At Home:

  • Stay inside as much as possible, with doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut. Place damp towels at door thresholds and other draft sources; tape drafty windows.
  • Put air conditioners on the recirculation setting so outside air will not be moved into the room and clean air will circulate through air conditioners and air cleaners.
  • Take extra precaution for children, who are more susceptible to gases and smoke because their respiratory systems are still developing and they breathe in more air (and consequently more pollution) per pound of body mass than adults.

If You Go Outside:

  • Refrain from all outdoor exercise if the air quality forecast is code red (Unhealthy) or higher.
  • Avoid driving. If you must drive in affected areas, keep your windows and vents closed. Air conditioning should only be operated in the "recirculate" setting.
  • Don't count on a dust mask. Ordinary dust masks, designed to filter out large particles, will not help as they still allow the more dangerous smaller particles to pass through. Special, more expensive dust masks with true HEPA filters will filter out the damaging fine particles, but are difficult for people with lung disease to use. Consult with your physician before using a mask, especially if you have a lung disease. A dust mask with an N-95 rating is most highly recommended for ash protection. In an emergency, if you don't have a mask available, use a damp handkerchief.

Medications:

  • If you take medications, put them in a convenient place. It is important to continue taking your medicines. Medications you need for an acute episode should be readily available.
  • If you don't have any medications, but feel that you might need them, call your physician. Make sure you have clear instructions from your physician as to what to do if your lung condition suddenly worsens.
  • Assume that your lung condition may deteriorate and contact your physician as soon as any problem develops. Do not allow a respiratory condition to linger, especially if there is a high concentration of ash particles.
  • Ask about your oxygen use. People using oxygen should not adjust their levels of intake before consulting a physician. (Call your doctor BEFORE you take any action.)

When to Seek Medical Attention:

If pulmonary symptoms are not relieved by the usual medicines, seek medical attention. Symptoms to watch for:

  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty taking a full breath
  • Chest heaviness
  • Light headedness
  • Dizziness

If you have any concerns or questions please contact your physician.

Watch for breathing issues after exposure. If you develop a persistent cough, or difficult or painful breathing, call your physician. The onset of symptoms can appear as late as 24 to 48 hours after exposure. Ash can remain in areas for many days after the volcanic event has ended, and become airborne again during recovery and clean up.

Clean Up

Residents and volunteers should use caution during clean-up because the process involves ashes and other particulates.

  • Avoid dust and soot: People with lung or heart problems should avoid clean-up activities and areas where dust or soot are present.
  • Reduce airborne particulates: Thoroughly wet dusty and soot area prior to clean-up. This will help to reduce the amount of particulates becoming airborne.
  • Cover your face: Wear an appropriate dust mask during clean up

Resources

  • Lung Health Helpline: 1-800-LUNGUSA

 

While these suggestions are intended especially for children, older adults and persons suffering from respiratory conditions (asthma, COPD), they are also useful for normally healthy adults during episodes of volcanic haze.

Ask An Expert

Questions about your lung health? Need help finding healthcare? Call 1-800-LUNGUSA.

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