Skip to main content

Medical effects of volcanic eruptions

I. Main causes of death and injury

Abstract

Excluding famine and tsunamis, most deaths in volcanic eruptions have been from pyroclastic flows and surges (nuées ardentes) and wet debris flows (lahars). Information on the causes of death and injury in eruptions is sparse but the available literature is summarised for the benefit of volcanologists and emergency planners. In nuées, thermal injury may be at least as important as asphyxia in causing immediate deaths. The high temperature of the gases and entrained particles readily causes severe burns to the skin and the air passages and the presence of both types of injury in an individual may combine to increase the delayed mortality risk from respiratory complications or from infection of burns. Trauma from missiles or body displacement is also common, but the role of asphyxiant or irritant gases, and steam, remains unclear. The ratio of dead: injured is much higher than in other natural disasters. At the periphery of a nuée being protected inside buildings which remain intact appears to greatly increase the chances of survival. In lahars, infected wounds and crush injury are the main delayed causes of death, and the scope for preventive measures, other than evacuation, is small. The evidence from Mount St. Helens, 1980, and other major eruptions indicates that, although mortality is high within the main zone of devastation and in the open, emergency planning should concentrate on the periphery of a nuée where preventive measures are feasible and could save many lives in densely populated areas.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

References

  • Anderson T, Flett JS (1903) Report on the eruption of The Soufriere in St Vincent 1902 and on a visit to Montagne Pelee in Martinique. Phil Trans R Soc London 100:353–553 Series A

    Google Scholar 

  • Banks NG, Hoblitt RP (1981) The 1980 eruptions of Mount St Helens, Washington. Summary of temperature studies of 1980 deposits. In: Lipman PW, Mullineaux DR (eds) The 1980 eruptions of Mount St Helens, 295–313 Geol Surv Prof Pap 1250, US Govt Printing Office Washington DC

    Google Scholar 

  • Baxter PJ, Davies PC, Murray V (1989) Medical planning for toxic releases into the community: the example of chlorine gas. Br J Indust Med 46:277–285

    Google Scholar 

  • Baxter PJ, Ing R, Falk H, French J, Stein GF, Bernstein RS, Merchant JA, Allard J (1981) Mount St Helens Eruptions, May 18 to June 12, 1980. An overview of the acute health impact. J Am Med Assoc 246:2585–2589

    Google Scholar 

  • Baxter PJ, Kapila M (1989) Acute health impact of the gas release at Lake Nyos, Cameroon, 1986. J Volcanol Geotherm Res 39:265–275

    Google Scholar 

  • Bernstein RS, Baxter PJ, Falk H, Ing R, Foster L, Frost F (1986) Immediate public health concerns and actions in volcanic eruptions: lessons from the Mount St Helens eruptions May 18-October 18, 1980. In: Buist AS, Bernstein RS (eds) Health effects of volcanoes: an approach to evaluating the health effects of an environmental hazard. Am J Public Health 76 (Suppl):25–37

  • Birch N (1988) Passenger protection technology in aircraft accident fires. Gower Technical Press, Aldrshot

    Google Scholar 

  • Blong RJ (1984) Volcanic hazards. A source book on the effects of eruptions. Academic Press, Sydney, p 411

    Google Scholar 

  • Buettner K (1950) Effects of extreme heat in man. J Am Med Assoc 144:732–381

    Google Scholar 

  • Buttner K (1950) Conflagration heat. Chap in: German Aviation Medicine World War II, Vol 2. Washington DC, Dept of the Air Force, US Govt Printing Office, pp 1167–1187

    Google Scholar 

  • Camps FE (ed) (1976) Gradwohl's Legal Medicine. 3rd edn. John Wright, Bristol

    Google Scholar 

  • Chi-Shing Chu (1981) New concepts of pulmonary burn injury. J Trauma 21:958–961

    Google Scholar 

  • Cotes JE, Steel J (1987) Work-related lung disorders. Blackwell, Oxford 436

    Google Scholar 

  • Crandell DR, Booth B, Kusumadinata K, Shimozuru D, Walkere GPL, Westercamp D (1984): Source-book for volcanic hazards zonation. UNESCO, Paris, p 97

    Google Scholar 

  • Department of the Air Force (1950) German Aviation Medicine World War II, vol. 1 and 2, US Govt Printing Office, Washington DC

    Google Scholar 

  • Desaga H (1950) Experimental investigations of the action of dust. In: German Aviation Medicine World War II, vol 2. US Govt Printing Office, Dept of the Air Force, Washington DC, pp 1188–1203

    Google Scholar 

  • Eisele JW, O'Halloran RL, Reay DT, Lindholm GR, Lewman LV, Brady WJ (1981) Deaths during the May 18, 1980, eruption of Mount St Helens. New Eng J Med 305:931–936

    Google Scholar 

  • Falk H, Baxter PJ, Ing R, French J, Heath CW, Merchant JA (1980) Mount St Helens Volcano health reports Nos 1-23. Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta

    Google Scholar 

  • Glasstone S, Dolan PJ (1977) The effects of nuclear weapons, 3rd edn. US Dept of Defense, Washington DC

    Google Scholar 

  • Gueri M, Perez LJ (1986) Medical aspects of the “El Ruiz” avalanche disaster, Columbia. Disasters 10: 150–157

    Google Scholar 

  • Heilprin A (1903) Mont Pelee and the tragedy of Martinique. Lippincott, Philadelphia London

    Google Scholar 

  • Heiser V (1937) An American doctor's odyssey. WW Norton, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Hill RT (1902) Report by Robert T. Hill on the volcanic disturbance in the West Indies. Natl Geogr 13: 223–301

    Google Scholar 

  • Hovey EO (1902) The eruption of La Soufriere, St Vincent, in May, 1902. Natl Geogr 13: 44–459

    Google Scholar 

  • Irving D (1963) The destruction of Dresden. William Kember, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Jaggar TA (1949) Steam blast volcanic eruptions. Fourth special report of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory of the US Geological Survey and the Hawaiian Volcano Research Association. Hawaiian Volcano Research Association, Honolulu

    Google Scholar 

  • Johnson RW, Threlfall NA (1985) Volcano town. The 1937–43 Rabaul eruptions. Robert Brown & Assoc, Bathurst, p 151

    Google Scholar 

  • Kennan G (1969) The tragedy of Pelee. Negro Universities Press New York (reprinted 1902 The Outlook Co)

    Google Scholar 

  • Kieffer SW (1981) The 1980 eruptions of Mount St Helens, Washington. Fluid dynamics of the May 18 Blast at Mount St Helens. In: Lipman PW, Mullineaux DR (eds) The 1980 eruptions of Mount St Helens. Geol Surv Pap 1250, US Govt Printing Office, Washington DC, pp 379–400

    Google Scholar 

  • Klotz IM (1988) The chemical death of Lot's wife: discussion paper. J R S Med 81:397–398

    Google Scholar 

  • Lacroix A (1904) La Montagne Pelee et ses éruptions. Masson, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  • Lancet (editorial) (1986) Adult respiratory distress syndrome. Lancet 1:301–03

  • Lowe DR, Williams SN, Leigh H, Connor CB, Gemmell JB, Stoiber RE (1986) Lahars initiated by the 13 November 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz, Columbia. Nature 324:51–53

    Google Scholar 

  • Maiuri A (1961) Last moments of the Pompeians. Natl Geogr 120:651–669

    Google Scholar 

  • Marshall TK (1977) Explosion injuries. In: Tedeschi CG, Eckert WG, Tedeschi LG (eds) Forensic Medicine, vol 1. Mechanical trauma. Sauders, Phildelphia, pp 612–635

    Google Scholar 

  • McKee CO, Johnson RW, Lowenstein PL, Riley SJ, Blong RJ, de Saint Ours P, Talai B (1983) Rabaul Caldera, Papua New Guinea: volcanic hazards and eruption contingency planning. Report 83/17, Geol Surv Papua New Guinea, Dept Miner Energy

  • McKee CO, Johnson RW, Lowenstein PL, Riley SJ, Blong RJ, de Saint Ours P, Talai B (1985) Rabaul Caldera, Papua New Guinea: volcanic hazards, surveillance, and eruption contingency planning. J Volc Geoth Res 23:195–237

    Google Scholar 

  • Moore JG, Nakamura K, Alcaraz A (1966) The 1965 eruption of Taal Volcano. Science 151:955–960

    Google Scholar 

  • Moore JG, Melson WG (1969) Nuées ardentes of the 1968 eruption of Mayon Volcano, Philippines. Bull Volcanol 33:600–620

    Google Scholar 

  • Moore JG, Sisson TW (1981) The 1980 eruptions of Mount St Helens, Washington. Deposits and effects of the May 18 pyroclastic surge. In: Lipman PW, Mullineaux DR (eds) The 1980 eruptions of Mount St Helens. Geol Surv Prof Pap 1250. US Govt Printing Office, Washington DC, pp 421–438

    Google Scholar 

  • Moritz AR, Henriques FC Jr (1947) Studies of thermal injury II: the relative importance of time and surface temperature in the causation of cutaneous burns. Am J Pathol 23:695–720

    Google Scholar 

  • Moritz AR, Henriques FC, McLean R (1945) The effects of inhaled haled heat on air passages and lungs. Am J Pathol 21:311–325

    Google Scholar 

  • Munro A, Robertson GS (1975) Respiratory tract injury in burning accidents. Burns 1:285–290

    Google Scholar 

  • National Library of Medicine (1980) Biomedical effects of volcanoes. Specialized Bibliography Series, SBS No 1980-1 (National Library of Medicine, US Dept of Health and Human Services)

  • Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-Ordinator (UNDRO) (1985) Volcanic emergency management. United Nations, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Parshley PF, Kiessling PJ, Antonius JA, Connell RS, Miller SH, Green FHY (1982) Pyroclastic flow injury. Mount St Helens, May 18, 1980. Am J Surg 143:565–68

    Google Scholar 

  • Pewe TL (1981) Desert dust: an overview. In: Pewe TL (ed) Desert dust: origin, characteristics, and effect on man. Colorado: The Geological Society of America, Colorado, pp 1–10

    Google Scholar 

  • Pratt WE (1911) The eruption of Taal volcano, January 30, 1911. Philipp J Sci 6:63–86

    Google Scholar 

  • Richards NT, Tattersal J, McCann M, Samson A, Mathias T, Johnson A (1989) Dialysis required for acute renal failure due to crush injuries after the Armenian earthquake. Br Med J 298:443–445

    Google Scholar 

  • Rose WI Jr (1977) Scavenging of volcanic aerosol by ash: atmospheric and volcanological implications. Geology 5:621–624

    Google Scholar 

  • Rosenbaum JG, Waitt RB (1981) The 1980 eruptions of Mount St Helens, Washington. Summary of eye witness accounts of the May 18 eruption. In: Lipman PW, Mullineaux DR (eds) The 1980 eruptions of Mount St Helens. Geol Surv Prof Pap 1250, US Govt Printing Office, Washington DC, pp 53–67

    Google Scholar 

  • Seaman J (1984) Epidemiology of natural disasters. Karger, Basel, p 180

    Google Scholar 

  • Sigurdsson H, Carey S (1986) Volcanic disasters in Latin American and the 13th November 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz volcano in Columbia. Disasters 10:205–216

    Google Scholar 

  • Sigurdsson H, Carey S, Cornell W, Pescatore T (1985) The eruption of Vesuvius in AD79. Natl Geogr Res 1:332–387

    Google Scholar 

  • Sigurdsson H, Carey SN, Espindola JM (1984) The 1982 eruptions of El Chichon volcano, Mexico: stratigraphy of pyroclastic deposits. J Volcanol Geotherm Res 23:11–37

    Google Scholar 

  • Sigurdsson H, Carey SN, Fisher RV (1987) The 1982 eruptions of El Chichon volcano, Mexico (3): physical properties of pyroclastic surges. Bull Volcanol 49:467–488

    Google Scholar 

  • Sigurdsson H, Cashdollar S, Sparks RSJ (1982) The eruption of Vesuvius in Ad79: reconstruction from historical and volcanological evidence. Am J Archeol 86:39–51

    Google Scholar 

  • Simkin T, Siebert L, McClelland L, Bridge D, Newhall C, Latter JH (1981) Volcanoes of the world. Hutchinson Ross, Pennsylvania, p 232

    Google Scholar 

  • Somogyi E, Tedeschi CG (1977) Lnjury by electrical force. In: Tedeschi CG, Eckert WG, Tedeschi LG (eds) Forensic medicine: a study in trauma and environmental hazards. Mechanic trauma 1:666–670

  • Sparks RSJ (1976) Grain size variations in ignimbrites and implications for the transport of pyroclastic flows. Sedimentology 23:147–188

    Google Scholar 

  • Stewart IP (1987) Major crush injury. Br Med J 294:854–855

    Google Scholar 

  • Swanson DA, Christiansen RL (1973) Tragic base surge in 1790 at Kilauea volcano. Geology 1:83–86

    Google Scholar 

  • Taylor GAM (1958) The 1951 eruption of Mount Lamington, Papua. Australian Dept of National Developments Canberra, Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics, Bull No 38

  • Will J (1903) Report on medical relief expedition to Martinique and St Vincent in aid of the sufferers from volcanic eruptions, May, 1902. HMSO, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Wiliams SN (1987) Nevado del Ruiz volcano, Colombia: the November 1985 eruption and related events. J Volcanol Geotherm Res 33:353–360

    Google Scholar 

  • Winner WE, Casadevall TJ (1983) The effects of the Mount St Helens eruption cloud on fir (Abies SP) needle cuticles: analysis with scanning electron microscopy. Am J Bot 70:80–87

    Google Scholar 

  • Worcester DC (1912) Taal volcano and its recent destructive eruption. Nat Geogr Mag 23:313–367

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Baxter, P.J. Medical effects of volcanic eruptions. Bull Volcanol 52, 532–544 (1990). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00301534

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00301534

Keywords

  • Steam
  • Debris Flow
  • Preventive Measure
  • Sedimentology
  • Volcanic Eruption