Volcanic ash poses little health threat so far: WHO

GENEVA (Reuters) - Ash particles from Iceland’s still-erupting volcano remain high in the atmosphere and do not pose a health risk so far to people in Europe, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday.

A member of a volunteer rescue force mans a roadblock into Eyjafjoll April 19, 2010. REUTERS/Ingolfur Juliusson

Toning down its guidance from Friday, when it said the ash cloud that has grounded flights could be “very dangerous” for those with asthma and respiratory problems [ID:nLDE63F0YZ], the WHO said there was no cause for public health alarm so far.

“There are no effects on health at the moment, except in the vicinity of the volcano in Iceland,” Carlos Dora of the public health and environment division told a news briefing.

Icelanders living near the volcano should stay indoors or wear face masks and goggles to protect themselves against coarse particles that can irritate the lungs and eyes, Dora said.

The most dangerous ash particles are the smallest ones which can be breathed in deep into the lungs, and which have moved further from the volcano in the plume billowing over Europe.

But those fine particles are still “very high up” and weather conditions could very well cause the ash cloud to disperse without causing health problems in Europe, Dora said.

The World Meteorological Organization, based in Geneva, like the WHO is based in Geneva, said the ash particles were made up of small jagged pieces of rock, mineral and volcanic glass the size of sand, salt or silt.

Such fine particles are normally dispersed by thunderstorms which are not expected in the region in the coming days.

A low pressure weather system is expected to develop over Iceland later this week, potentially pushing the cloud toward the Arctic and prompting rain to “wash out” the ash, the WMO said in a statement.

A WMO expert said that the health risks of the cloud were currently negligible across Europe.

“If you sit in Geneva in a bar and somebody smokes next to you, you probably have 10 to the power of three times more fine particles entering your lungs,” Herbert Puempel, head of the WMO’s aeronautical meteorology division, told a briefing.

The WHO’s Dora said if the ash cloud persisted and descend to ground level, the health risks would be greatest for asthmatics and people with respiratory and heart conditions.

“All of those diseases are made worse by high concentrations of particles,” he told journalists.