Everything you need to know about the use of facemask against ashfall

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) on Sunday night raised the status of Taal Volcano to Level 4 or hazardous explosive eruption is possible within hours to days. Volcanic ashfall has spread not just in nearby South Luzon areas but has reached far north of Metro Manila.
use of facemask against ashfall

Tagaytay Picnic Grove covered by ashfall
Tagaytay People's Park in the Sky covered in ashfall | Photo Courtesy: Facebook/ Jerome Abuan

According to the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network (IVHHN), a global network of scientists, ash poses more threat than dust.

SEE ALSOPhivolcs' eruption update for Taal Volcano, January 13

IVHHN explained, "Ash is different from ordinary house dust. Its sharp, crystalline structure causes it to scratch and abrade surfaces when it is removed by wiping or brushing.

In wet weather the ash deposits are dampened down and the air can be clear, but in drier weather ash can easily be stirred up and remobilised by wind and traffic. As a result, suspended dust levels become much higher and can reach levels potentially harmful to health."

Among those listed by the Department of Health (DOH) as precautionary measures is the wearing of mask. And while the public is in a hurry to wear a facemask, it's important to know if it is suitable for the person and the situation.

IVHHN said that the effectiveness of wearing a facemask depends particularly on two factors:

  • how effective the mask or material is at filtering particles (stopping the ash from passing through the material);
  • the fit of the mask or material to the face (preventing particles from entering around the edges).

It is important to note that not everyone is suitable to wear a facemask. Because its purpose is to filter the air we breathe, those with existing respiratory or cardiovascular disease will find it difficult to breathe when using any form of respiratory protection. It is best to consult first with a health professional if it is advisable for them to wear a facemask.

Facemasks are not usually designed to fit children’s faces, unless it is specifically marked made for children. The size of facemasks being sold in the market are usually fitted for adults. Because of this, children and infants who wear facemasks are still prone to exposure. It is still advised that they stay indoors and in a "non-ashy" environment.

The most effective respiratory protection for adults is to wear a well-fitting, industry-certified facemask such as a N95 mask (also called P2, FFP2 or DS2 in different parts of the world). The certification will be printed on the mask.

N95 mask is the most effective facemask
N95 mask is the most effective facemask | Photo Courtesy: IVHHN

The most common facemask readily available is the standard surgical mask. The pleated mask is still "good" at filtering ash as long it is worn properly and fitted to the face.

Face mask is considered "good" at filtering ash
Face mask is considered "good" at filtering ash | Photo Courtesy: IVHHN

Another mask commonly seen is the simple healthcare masks. Unlike the surgical mask, this is non-pleated and does not filter ash well at all.

The non-pleated healthcare mask is not effective at all
The non-pleated healthcare mask is not effective at all | Photo Courtesy: IVHHN

The scooter mask, which is often used by motorcycle riders are also considered "less effective" at filtering ash.

Scooter mask is considered "less effective"
Scooter mask is considered "less effective" | Photo Courtesy: IVHHN

When no facemask is available, many people would tend to use any cloth material as protection. These bandanas, handkerchiefs or veils worn over the nose are still "less effective" and will offer less protection and they also tend not to fit well.

Using any cloth material that does not fit well can still lead to exposure
Using any cloth material that does not fit well can still lead to exposure | Photo Courtesy: IVHHN

Effects of volcanic emission

While facemasks can filter out particles in the air, it does not prevent the inhalation of harmful gases and chemicals emitted during a volcanic eruption.

Exposure or breathing of several volcanic gases such as sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, hydrochloric acid can cause serious health problems when in contact with the skin and eyes.

Aside from irritation of the nose, throat, eyes, or skin, it can trigger asthma, it can cause nausea and chest tightness.

— Sally, The Summit Express

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