Volcanic ash health hazard

The horrific scene that greeted me when I went outside this morning:

So which is it:

  1. ‘No threat to human health’,
  2. Health warning‘ aka ‘Remain Indoors!‘,
  3. I wish those experts would stop confusing us with this conflicting advice

or

4. none of the above?

To be fair, the coverage hasn’t been that bad: mostly the usual fishing for a story which isn’t, with the headline writers more at fault than the journos themselves.

The first story’s headline is a mild misrepresentation of the UK Health Protection Agency’s statement from 15th April. The original press release states that the ash does not present a significant public health risk as the ash was at high level. Twenty-four hours later, some of the ash was starting to descend, and the HPA revised their advice accordingly: those people with asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions might want to carry their medication with them and/or return indoors if their mucous membranes get irritated. Nothing very confusing here, and all consistent with previous research and guidance on volcanic ash health hazards.

Then the World Health Organisation issued a statement using similar language, and apparently held a press conference with the more hyperbolic claim that Europeans going outside “may want to wear a mask.” Except that what was actually said was that if and when the dust descends to ground level, WHO might recommend that those people with pre-existing respiratory conditions should wear a mask when they go outdoors.

Truly, the apocalypse is nigh.

While I feel for those stuck in the northern European travel chaos, it’s been great to have an unpronounceable Icelandic volcano as a leading TV news story: something capable of squashing the UK election into second place.

Further reading:
IVHHN – The International Volcanic Health Hazard Network
Review article on volcanic ash health hazards, for those with full text access (frustratingly, not me at the moment)
Great summary of the geoscience behind the current eruption from somebody who knows what they’re talking about

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