La Palma volcano eruption: what are its health consequences?

Volcano eruptions are dangerous at the moment, but also in the long term. Respiratory patients should take extra precautions.

Last update: September 21, 2021

This Sunday the eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma, an island that is part of the Canaries, made news. It is the first eruption on this island since 1971 and the economic losses are enormous.

Although beyond that, the health situation worries. Volcanic eruptions carry a series of immediate risks to life, but also in the medium and long term, due to the ash that flies, toxic fumes and the reactions of the lava with the sea, when it comes into contact with water.

After the eruption of the volcano on La Palma on Sunday, there have been some tremors and experts assume that lava activity can last for a few months. So far, more than 6000 people have been evacuated and the lava covers about 100 hectares.

In economic terms, the estimated losses are around 400 million euros. Almost 200 homes were swallowed up by the advance of the phenomenon and new structural damage is expected in the future.

Let's see, then, what the health consequences of a volcanic eruption of this type can be. We will also analyze what are the specific recommendations to take care of yourself before these events.

Risk of injuries from the volcano eruption on La Palma

Volcanic eruptions generate structural damage that cause economic problems, but also these damages can lead to trauma to people. The fall of a roof, the collapse of walls and the destruction of buildings are common before these events.

Car accidents should also be considered. The lack of good visibility due to the fog generated by the ash and the confusion of the drivers who are taken unexpectedly on their routes, favors crashes.

Electricity is not a minor issue nor should it be neglected. The collapse of building structures and roads often reveals power transmission cables and connections. If to this is added the presence of water, due to the proximity of a sea, concomitant rains or broken pipes, the risk of electric shock exists.

Homes and buildings can catch fire, collapse, or flood after volcanic eruptions and associated tremors.

How to act in this case?

To reduce the risk of trauma in a volcano eruption, as is the case now on La Palma, authorities must create emergency shelters for evacuees. In this way, people have a roof and a safe place to avoid being exposed to landslides or accidents.

In the same way, traffic control is imposed from the first moment. Safe circulation sites and roads that do not have obvious danger must be ensured. For private drivers, the recommendation is always to limit travel to the essentials.

Toxic hazard in volcanic eruptions

Volcano eruptions release into the atmosphere a series of substances that are toxic and irritating. Both in its inhalation through the respiratory route and in its direct dermatological contact, volcanic ash and particles that carry gases generate reactions dangerous to human health.

Heavy metal (arsenic) poisoning, for example, is capable of leading to death in patients with chronic diseases. In the same way, if the food of habitual consumption is contaminated, not only will there be gastrointestinal discomfort, but it can also lead to dehydration and hypovolemic shock.

When gases and toxic substances fall from the air in the form of water, we have what is known as acid rain. This phenomenon irritates the skin on contact and it can generate aggressive conjunctivitis if the eyes are exposed.

How to act in this case?

People affected by the volcano eruption on La Palma should avoid going outside whenever possible. It is preferable to reduce exposure to environmental pollutants by staying indoors, as long as the host site is safe and not in danger of collapse.

Food is a complicated subject. It is difficult to ensure the safety of the products that were in the markets in the area. In general, government assistance teams tend to provide food that comes from other places, with its corresponding sanitation.

Rainwater cannot be drunk in the midst of these catastrophes. This could lead to severe intestinal damage.

Respiratory problems from the volcanic eruption

Inhalation of ash and silica is a problem to consider in volcano eruptions. Particles enter the body through the respiratory tract capable of causing immediate, but also long-term, damage due to deposit in the alveoli.

The finer ash is particularly serious for patients with a history of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In them there is an exacerbation of symptoms, with the possibility of a crisis and respiratory failure.

On the other hand, airborne silica powder is capable of accumulating in the lungs and leading to silicosis. This condition is chronic and manifests itself years after exposure. A fibrosis develops in the lung tissue and respiratory functions are lost.

How to act in this case?

Volcanic ash is in the air long after eruptions. That is why there are specific recommendations for the use of masks for many weeks. Especially the days of wind and gusts that distribute the particles more.

In some houses it is convenient to install air filtering systems, which reduce the entry of ashes into the home. Work sites must also have measures so that suspended particles do not reach the interiors.

Asthmatic and COPD patients should take these measures to extremes. They should have medication reinforcements to address a respiratory crisis and prevent its progression to respiratory failure.

COPD patients should be extremely careful during a volcanic eruption, as they are at greater risk.

The eruption of the volcano on La Palma will have future consequences

As we have already anticipated, the health consequences of the volcano eruption on La Palma are not limited to current structural damage. Various health problems will follow in the next few weeks and possibly for months as well.

It is essential that those affected respect the instructions of the authorities and assistance teams. The reduction of non-essential activities is imposed for now to avoid contact with toxins.