What to do when lethal volcanic ashfall descends


Rikki Mathay

The first time people from my generation living in Metro Manila and nearby areas actually saw ashfall was way back in 1991. I remember being at the penthouse of my family's home, amused by the "fairydust-like" particles falling down from the sky, as I was blissfully unaware that it was volcanic ash from Mt. Pinatubo. And not too long ago in 2020, as I was having dinner out with guests from abroad, I saw the same ash again, this time from the Taal Volcano eruption which killed 39 people and hundreds of livestock, and displaced thousands of families. My guests from Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea had no choice but to extend their stay in Manila as all flights were canceled due to the ashfall.

Last week, we were warned of another volcanic activity – this time further south of Metro Manila, 565 kilometers southeast to be exact – Mount Bulusan in Sorsogon. As hundreds of families in the towns of Buraburan, Sangkayon, Puting Sapa, Añog, Bacolod, Catanusan, and Guruyan were forced to flee their homes a week ago and the alert level was placed at 1 (Low Level of volcanic unrest), with an entry ban in a four-kilometer radius still in effect, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (PHIVOLCS) warns that the activity of Mount Bulusan continues now posing a threat to reach Metro Manila through its ashfall. An average of 120 volcanic earthquakes were recorded from Mt. Bulusan with the past days, and this shouldn't be taken lightly.

Far from being a child's imaginary fairy-dust, volcanic ash are abrasive particles that can scratch the surface of the skin and eyes, causing discomfort and inflammation. Worse, volcanic ash can cause breathing problems and damage the lungs and can even cause a person to suffocate and die.

In the event of a volcanic ashfall, we have protocols in place to ensure one's safety and health:

  1. If outside, immediately wear an N95 mask. In case there is no N95 mask, wet a handkerchief or any piece of cloth to cover the nose and mouth. Find shelter in case rocks or ash fall. Immediately wipe or wash the skin in case of exposure.
  2. If driving a vehicle, stop and park the vehicle in a safe place. While one might think volcanic ashfall rarely happens, one would be prudent to assume it does. Keeping an emergency kit in your vehicles is always a good idea, and adding N95 masks and a powerbank would be wise.
  3. If you are indoors, close all doors and windows to prevent ash from coming in. Keep windows closed until further notice from authorities that is why it is important to keep abreast with the news for information on the eruption including cleanup plans. Rely on trusted sources of news only as misinformation, which has been rampant through social media, can lead to more precarious situations.
  4. If warning is given before ashfall starts, immediately go home. Take off contact lenses as these can result in corneal abrasion.
  5. If at work when ashfall starts, stay indoors until the ash has settled.
Volcanic ash, being tiny, dust-sized particles which can enter into practically everything — from car engines, to office building air vents, to personal computers — are very difficult to clean up. As tiny as it is, volcanic ash has the potential to erode anything that it contacts and can cause machinery to fail. Wet ash acts like cement as it binds itself to surfaces. For households with better means, cleanups may be easier done than those in lower income communities, and this is where their local and barangay officials should step up. If we were to attempt to replicate ashfall cleanup efforts in first world countries, authorities must implement round-the-clock cleanup to be dispatched in a grid pattern.  The Filipinos' Bayanihan will also prove to be extremely useful if communities help with a voluntary block-by-block cleanup effort. Clean your gutters and roofs with water after removing the ash.

Even after the volcanic ashfall, continue to wear protection for your lungs, eyes and skin when cleaning up ash from the explosion.

Lastly, save these important numbers on your phones:

PHIVOLCs: (02) 8426-1468 - 79

National Emergency Hotline: 911

Philippine Red Cross: 143 or (02) 8790-2300

Philippine National Police: 117

National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC): (02) 8911-5061-65 local 100

Bureau of Fire Protection: (02) 8426-0246.

As a certified first aid and disaster respondent of the Philippine Red Cross, my mantra when it comes to calamities is preparedness. Be prepared and stay safe!