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What to Know About Volcanic Eruption Safety

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on November 29, 2022

Few natural disasters are as dramatic as a volcanic eruption. If you live within about 20 miles of a volcano, it’s a good idea to know the safety measures in case this happens. This is important even if the volcano is dormant. When the pressure from gas and lava inside a volcano gets too high, an eruption can create explosive or oozing lava flows, flying ash and rocks, harmful gases, vog (volcanic smog), and other threats to your well-being.

How Can You Prepare for A Volcanic Eruption?

Volcanic eruptions can be scary. But there are things you can do to keep you and your family safe beforehand:

Listen to your local officials. Above all, it’s important to listen to safety advice. Your city’s authorities will give you tips on how to prepare for an eruption. They’ll also provide you with information on how to evacuate or shelter, if needed.

Be ready to shelter or evacuate. In some cases, you might have to move to a different area or take extra measures to shelter where you are. Have an evacuation and shelter plan ready for yourself and your family. If you make one before you need it, it can help you to stay calm when you need to take action.

Go over the plans with your loved ones so that everyone knows what to do.

Create an emergency supply kit. Along with a plan, you should have some supplies ready in advance. A supply kit should include:

  • A first aid kit with instructions
  • A flashlight
  • Extra batteries
  • Food and water
  • A non-electric can opener
  • A battery-powered radio
  • Important medications
  • Reliable and safe shoes
  • Breathing protection (masks)
  • Eye protection (goggles)

Protect your lungs. Volcanic ash and vog can harm your respiratory, or breathing, tract. To prepare for a volcanic eruption, make sure you get proper protection. Use an N95 respirator, or an air purifying respirator, to protect your lungs.

If you can’t get ahold of these, use a nuisance dust mask. These masks aren’t as protective, but they can help keep you safer for short amounts of time while dust is in the air.

You can find these masks at hardware stores.

What to Do if You Have to Evacuate or Shelter in Place

While it may seem fine to stay, you should listen to your local officials if they tell you to evacuate. Volcanoes can release harmful gas, lava, rocks, and ash that make it unsafe to stay where you are.

To get ready for an evacuation, make sure to:

  • Fill up your car’s gas tank.
  • Bring an emergency kit with flares, a first aid kit, booster cables, tools, a map, a fire extinguisher, extra food, sleeping bags, batteries, flashlights, and any other necessities.
  • Before you leave, keep your car covered if possible.
  • Keep an ear out for disaster sirens or other warnings.
  • Listen to your radio or TV for updates.
  • Get familiar with your evacuation plan.
  • Make sure you have enough medication for at least a week.
  • Fill water jugs with clean water.
  • Be ready to bring pets with you, but also know that emergency shelters may decline animals.
  • Fill up your sinks and bathtubs with water as a backup for clean water.
  • Put your refrigerator and thermostat on the coldest setting so that your food will stay cold longer if the power goes out.

Before you leave, turn off your gas, water, and electricity if you have time. Unplug things that could cause electrical shock when your power turns back on.

As you head out, be prepared for heavy traffic and delays. Only follow evacuation routes. Other paths may be blocked.

If your local officials suggest that you shelter in place, it’s also important that you pay attention to the radio and TV for constant updates. Make sure that your radio works well in case you can’t access your TV. You might have to eventually evacuate later. You should also:

  • Turn off your heat, air conditioning, and fans.
  • Close and lock your windows and outside doors.
  • Double check your emergency supply kit and make sure everyone knows where it is.
  • Close your fireplace damper.
  • Stay in an inside room above ground level with no windows.
  • Keep your pets in the same room with you, and make sure they have enough food and water.
  • If you can, keep a hard-wired phone (one that plugs into a jack) with you. Call a family member or friend who doesn’t live near the volcano, and have them on alert in case you need to report a life-threatening situation.

How Can You Stay Safe During a Volcanic Eruption?

There are different types of volcanoes, and they erupt in different ways. Some may erupt in a blast, while others create widespread flows of lava. Scientists track volcanic activity. They can often predict an eruption and issue a warning if needed. In some cases, you might not have enough time to prepare. But if an eruption happens in your area, there are still things you can do to stay safe:

If any type of flow – whether it’s mud, debris, ash, or lava – is coming toward you, get out of the area right away. Use your car if you can. Keep your window, and doors shut. Drive across the path of danger if possible or away from it if not. Look out for dangers in the road.

If you’re outside during an eruption:

  • Get inside a safe space.
  • Roll into a ball to protect your head if you’re caught in a rockfall.
  • Look out for rising water and mudflows in low-lying spots if you’re near a stream or river. Move up the slope as fast as you can.
  • Get away from areas with volcanic fumes and gases that bother your eyes, nose, or throat. You may need to see a doctor later if your symptoms get worse.
  • Get help for burns as soon as you can. This may be lifesaving.

If you’re inside during an eruption:

  • Bring your pets or livestock inside or into closed areas.
  • Turn off all your fans, air conditioners, and heat.
  • Close all your doors, windows, and fireplace or woodstove dampers.

It’s also important that you keep yourself safe during ashfall from a volcano. Stay inside as much as possible. If you have to go outside, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Use goggles for your eyes and a mask to protect your lungs.

Keep your car engine off and try not to drive in ashfall. This can stir up ash that can clog your engine and cause your car to stall. But if you have to drive, keep your windows rolled up and the air conditioning off. Turing it on will bring outside air and ash in.

Sometimes, you might not be able to shelter inside for too long during ashfall. The ash might get too heavy on your roof and cause it to collapse. It can also block airways into your home. Stay posted on what local officials say in case ashfall lasts more than a few hours.

What Should You Do After an Eruption?

Even after an eruption, it’s important to keep safety at the top of your mind. To protect you and your family after a volcanic eruption:

  • Listen to all warnings and follow instructions from your local authorities.
  • Pay attention to the air quality, drinking water, and road updates.
  • Keep your heating, air conditioning, and fans turned off.
  • Keep your windows, doors, and fireplace and woodstove dampers closed.
  • Use masks and goggles when you go outside.
  • Avoid ashfall areas, and don’t touch any ash. Keep your skin covered to avoid irritation.
  • Don’t travel unless you have to.
  • Clear off the ash from the roof so that it doesn’t weigh down your house. But be careful, because ash can be very slippery.
  • Use bottled water if your drinking water has ash in it.
  • Swap out disposable furnace filters or clean out permanent ones.

How Does Volcanic Ash Affect Your Health?

In addition to the flying rocks and burning lava, volcanoes can cause a lot of harm from the gases they let off. That’s why it’s so important to wear long clothes, goggles, and masks.

Ash particlescan sneak into your lungs. Even if you’re healthy, this can bother your chest. You might notice a runny nose, a sore throat, dry coughing, or breathing issues. For people with health conditions like asthma or bronchitis, this can be worse. In this case, you might have long-lasting shortness of breath, coughing, or wheezing.

Grit from volcanic eruptions can hurt your eyes and skin, too. It can cause scratches on the front of your eyes, and burning, redness, inflammation, or sensitivity in them. You might notice sticky discharge or tearing and feel like there’s something stuck in your eye. Your eyes might hurt or become itchy and bloodshot.

It’s not common, but volcanic ash can also bother your skin. This is especially true if the ash is acidic. You might notice skin irritation or redness. You could develop a secondary infection if you scratch this area too hard.

Vog isalso harmful to your health, especially if you have other breathing-related conditions. Sulfur dioxide in the vog can hurt your skin, eyes, throat, nose, and lungs.

If you’re around vog from an eruption, you might develop:

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Habitat for Humanity: “Volcanic Eruptions.”

CDC: “Preparing for an Eruption,” “During an Eruption,” “After an Eruption.”

U.S. Geological Survey: “What health hazards are posed by vog (volcanic smog)?”

Volcanic Ashfall Impacts Working Group: “Volcanic Ash Impacts and Mitigation.”

United States Marine Corps: "Volcano." 

National Park Service: "Types of Volcanoes." 

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