Volcano eruption in Iceland will have minimal impact on health
The WHO Regional Office for Europe is closely monitoring the situation, including the possible health impact, of the Iceland volcanic eruption and is in close contact with its Member States regarding preparedness and response measures. The ash cloud contains fine particles but as long as the ash remains in the upper atmosphere, there will not be an increased risk to health. However, when it reaches ground level, and if it is in high concentration, the ash may cause health effects, but these are likely to be minimal.
Since the ash concentration may vary from country to country depending on the wind and air temperature, WHO advises people to follow the most up-to-date advice from their national health, air quality assessment and meteorological authorities. In case of increased air pollution, normal precautions are advised, i.e. avoidance of strenuous exercise by people with asthma and respiratory symptoms in days with high air pollution.
On 14 April, Iceland was hit by a second volcanic eruption in one month. WHO, through its Regional Office for Europe, was notified about the volcanic eruption as required under the International Health Regulations (2005) and is in contact with the relevant Icelandic public health authorities.
The Icelandic Directorate of Health has taken appropriate public health actions at this stage, including monitoring the volcano’s emission of volcanic ashes, undertaking chemical analysis of the ashes and issuing recommendations to the Icelandic population. In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Health Protection Agency – in collaboration with Health Protection Scotland and the Met Office – has provided updated information for the public on its web site.
About volcanic ash
Volcanic ash is composed of fine particles of fragmented volcanic rock. The main component of the ash that could be expected to have health effects is fine particulate matter (PM). Being less than 10 microns in size, particles can reach the lower respiratory airways. Analysis of the ash is ongoing and so far it is estimated that about 25% of the particles are less than 10 microns in size. People with chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma, emphysema or bronchitis may be more susceptible to irritation if ash is in the lower atmosphere in high concentrations.
As long as the volcanic ash remains in the upper atmosphere, there will be no increase in people's exposure and no risks for health. If it reaches the ground due to vertical movement of air masses, there is a risk of an increase in respiratory symptoms, but the increase is expected to be low and in the range observed without this unusual event. Rains may wash the ash without causing health risks.
The ash cloud might slowly reach other European countries and the eruption might last for days to weeks or more. The European Air Quality Monitoring Network includes hundreds of stations all over Europe that are located in cities, allowing an up-to-date assessment of air pollution on the ground. The European project CITAIR provides daily updates on the quality of air in cities across Europe. Until the evening of Friday 16 April, no increase in European air pollution levels has been observed.
The WHO Regional Office for Europe is providing guidance to Member States on effective ways to address the situation from a public health standpoint, coordinating with partner agencies. WHO will continue to assess the situation and will provide updates as necessary.