Geology and Human Health > Health Case Studies > Health Effects of Volcanic Ash

Volcanic Ash: More Than Just A Science Project

Author: Gretchen Williams

This case study is part of a collection of pages developed by students in the 2012 introductory-level Geology and Human Health course in the Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University. Learn more about this project.

The term "volcano" has its origin from the name of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire. However, volcanoes are a result of processes of the earth much older than Roman mythology. While volcanoes may be fun to construct for science class or watch on television, the real consequences of volcanic eruptions can be harmful and serious. Some of these consequences include fires, structure damage, and differences in climate. One of the most deadly effects of a volcano is the ash coming from the eruption, which carries poisonous gases that are harmful to humans, plants, and animals alike.

Hazards Of Volcanic Ash

A multitude of dangerous particals and gases, such as aerosols, are carried in volcanic ash. Some of these include;

These each have different but serious effects on human health if exposed, which will be discussed later.

In addition, volcanic ash can cause reduced visibility, and it is recommended that precautions are taken when driving.

Sources: Where Does It Come From?

There are volcanoes found all over the Earth, particularly at plate boundaries (see figure 1). This is due to the collision of plates, which causes uplift in the overlying crust. This uplift results in the formation of mountainous landforms; melting of the crust due to frictional heating is what creates magma, which can erupt out of these mountains when pressure gets too high.

Some of the most notable volcanic eruptions are:

For further information on volcanoes around the world, visit


How Volcanic Ash Travels Around The Earth System

Unfortunately, volcanic ash can be very easily transported around the Earth system. The movement of volcanic ash depends on:

Larger eruptions of ash can travel hundreds to thousands of kilometers downwind from the source, but can effect the climate in places on the other side of the world. Ash carried into the atmosphere and spread far from the epicenter can block the sun's rays, resulting in a cooler Earth. The ash can also return to the Earth's surface by means of precipitation; ash particles caught in clouds in the atmosphere fall back down to Earth with rain, snow, ect.



Volcanic ash contaminates the biosphere through inhalation by humans and animals, and can also effect crops growing in an area with large amounts of ash. When inhaled, the fibers are deposited in air passages and on lung cells.

Impacts on Human Health

Inhalation of volcanic ash can be very detrimental to human health, due to the harmful aerosols and poisonous gases the ash is made up of. Health effects inlcude respiratory problems, eye problems, and skin irritiation.

1. Respiratory symptoms (short-term)

2. Eye symptoms (short-term)

One long-term effect of volcanic ash is silicosis. Silicosis is a disease resulting in lung impairment and scarring, from exposure to particles of free crystalline silica. Minerals that are associated with silicosis include quartz, cristobalite, and tridymite, all potentially present in volcanic ash.

Volcanic ash can also contaminate the water supply.


Prevention or Mitigation

Fortunately, there are many ways to avoid and protect yourself againsts the dangers of volcanic ash. Precautions for the general public as published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are outlined below:


Recommended Readings

1. "Icelandic volcanic ash alert grounds UK flights." BBC News. 15 April 2010.

2. "Volcanic ash health advice." NHS Choice. 16 April 2010.

3. Gudmundsson, Gunnar. "The Clinical Respiratory Journal." Wiley Online Library. Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 29 November 2010.

Related Links


1. "Famous Volcanoes." University of Bristol. 2012.

2. "Volcano." Wikipedia. 28 November 2012.

3. "Volcanic Ash." Wikipedia. 13 November 2012.

4. "Volcanic Ash: Effects & Mitigation Strategies." U.S. Geology Survey. 03 February 2009.

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