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The Philippines’ Erupting Volcano is a Public Health Threat

Even aside from the immediate dangers, polluted air and trace poisons threaten hundreds of thousands.

Ash spews from the Taal volcano in a photograph posted to social media on January 11, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology)
Ash spews from the Taal volcano in a photograph posted to social media on January 11, 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology)

A volcano in the Philippines has begun to spout lava, placing nearly 500,000 people in danger.

The eruption comes a day after a shower of ash burst from the volcano, blanketing the surrounding area and polluting the air. By Monday, the ash had traveled 44 miles to the capital, Manila.

The burst was accompanied by a series of earthquakes and rumbling sounds. While no significant damage has been reported, authorities cautioned Sunday that the quakes could trigger a volcanic tsunami.

It may be just the beginning. The Taal volcano, as it’s known, could erupt again, more severely, at any moment. The Philippines Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) has warned of an “imminent hazardous eruption” that could take place “within hours or days.”

About 460,000 people within an immediate danger zone – a circle around the volcano with a radius of about 8.5 miles – have been told to evacuate.

Phivolcs has assigned the eruption a Level 4 alert, indicating increasing volcanic activity. The highest alert, Level 5, is reserved for situations when a hazardous eruption is actively ongoing.

The surrounding state of Batangas has also declared “a state of calamity.”

Thousands have fled to temporary evacuation centers. However, many people who initially obeyed the evacuation order have returned to homes inside the danger zone, according to the New York Times.

The eruption raised concerns about a large-scale calamity on par with the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines’ Zambales Mountains, which killed 800 people and displaced over 200,000.

Although the Taal volcano is comparatively small, it is highly dangerous: an extremely active fissure in the earth’s crust surrounded by a dense population and a lake that serves as a popular tourist attraction.

Even the presence of volcanic ash poses a significant health hazard. A nasal, respiratory, and ocular irritant, volcanic ash is particularly hazardous for already vulnerable people, including pregnant women, older adults, children, and those with respiratory or heart issues.

The poisonous gases and trace materials present when volcanic ash emerges are dangerous to humans, animals, and plants. In particular, the toxic element fluorine can have a devastating impact on livestock and agriculture.

Direct Relief has a staff member on the ground in the Philippines who is actively coordinating the organization’s disaster response.

An emergency shipment of 42,000 N95 masks, designed to filter out even minute particles in the air, will depart Direct Relief’s warehouse today, bound for the Philippine Red Cross in Manila.

In addition, the organization’s emergency response team is communicating with the ASEAN Coordinating Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA), along with other local partners, to see what additional assistance may be needed.

Earlier this year, in preparation for a disaster like the current disruption, Direct Relief positioned $500,000 in emergency response materials in AHA’s disaster logistics center in Manila. The materials are ready to be quickly distributed to disaster-affected communities as need dictates.

Daniel Hovey and Ledrolen Manriquez contributed additional reporting to this story.

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