Recap: What volcanic ash does to man and machine, and how to protect both

It’s not over yet
by Raymond Figuerres | Jan 16, 2020
PHOTO: Lian Hammer Dumas

It goes without saying that you shouldn’t drive or operate any vehicle though an ash cloud when there’s active volcanic activity depositing a significant amount of ash everywhere. Stay inside your house or office, unless it’s safer to evacuate. If you’re caught on the road and need to drive to a safer place, here is a list of things to remember:

1) Drive slowly

Ash suspended in the air is “inhaled” by the vehicle’s intake system, so the faster you drive, the higher the revs, the more air the engine sucks in. The air filter protects the engine from larger particles but it will eventually be overwhelmed and congested, which may result in damage to the engine and or loss of control of the vehicle.

Driving though ash is also like sandblasting the front part of the vehicle. The faster you are going, the higher the impact velocity on your primary means of road visibility—the headlights and the windshield. Imagine driving with a cloudy windshield and dim headlights that were blasted with fine ash. Road conditions may resemble driving on sand, too, so adjust your inputs accordingly. Gingerly step on the pedals and be prepared to countersteer through slippery roads. Be overly sensitive with feedback from the vehicle.


2) Minimize use of the wipers

The gritty ash will act like sandpaper, and scraping that throughout your windshield multiple times a minute will permanently etch scratches on it. Use windshield washers liberally, so that the resulting mud will be less abrasive. Make sure you have enough water to replenish your wiper washer reservoir.

3) Maintain a safe distance

Hang further back from the vehicles in front. The dust they kick up will decrease road visibility and you may not spot hazards. With that rooster tail of dust cloud, your radiator will clog up easier, the air filter will choke faster. 

4) Recirculate cabin air

Turn up the blower fan to its highest setting and maintain recirculation mode on the air conditioner. This will maintain higher pressure inside the cabin relative to the outside and prevent ash from seeping in. When it clears up, it may be safe to open a door or allow fresh air in though the cabin filter, but make sure the cabin intake port located near the wiper base is free of obstruction. Continuously recirculating air for an extended period is also hazardous because of carbon dioxide accumulation. 

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5) Stop

If the road conditions are not drivable, it is more prudent to stop at a safe location adjacent to the main thoroughfare, like a gas station or any public place. Stopping at the shoulder may be unsafe, especially in low visibility situations, and you could be hit by other motorists. If you’re commuting, get yourself indoors as soon as you can. 

6) Get out of the car

If you can’t keep the A/C running, you’ll suffocate inside. Find shelter and make sure you have a suitable breathing filter and eye protection before venturing outside. 

7) Cover up

If you’re in a jeepney or bus without air-conditioning, avoid inhaling ash and shield your eyes and skin. Ideally, you should be wearing windproof goggles and a particulate filter mask. The same protective equipment is recommended if you’re riding a motorcycle or a scooter. Multiple layers of fabric will filter about half of the particulate in the air, not 95% as guaranteed by a properly sealed N95 mask can.


People with heart or lung disorders may find it hard to breathe when using a tight-fitting mask or clothing used as masks, so evacuating them indoors or out of the affected area should be a priority. Health issues associated with exposure depends on the constituency of the volcanic ash. Without knowing that, it’s safer to minimize inhaling the dust and fumes. Most ill effects are related to airway inflammation, and aggravation of pre-existing respiratory diseases, like asthma and allergies. Prolonged exposure can cause severe pulmonary inflammation caused by the foreign debris inhaled.

Protect your eyes from the ash as it will cause irritation and swelling similar to the symptoms of sore eyes. Impairment of vision can be dangerous for pedestrians, and potentially fatal for commuters on motorbikes who are more susceptible to it when riding at speed without eye protection. 

8) Improvise

Sunglasses and eyeglasses may not provide adequate eye screening from the ash, but you can wrap a shirt around them to limit dust from entering around the lenses. If your particulate respirator, or mask, fails, that means there’s too much dust for it to filter or you’ve stayed in the affected area longer than its service life. A makeshift respirator using multiple layers of clothing will be better than nothing. Three or four layers of t-shirt material will be enough. The key is to make a good seal either by tying the fabrics tightly to your face, or using rubber bands or elastics to hold them firmly in place. 


9) Keep moving

If you must continue driving to get to safety, it may be necessary to stop frequently to clean the air filter. Blowing off excess dust with air pressure rather than tapping it or shaking it off is ideal, but the former is better than not cleaning it at all. If you have an extra air filter, swap in the cleaner one while you dust off the clogged one. If you have cleaning supplies in the car, brushing off dust accumulated on the brakes, the electrical system, the alternator, and the radiator will keep the car drivable. 

10) Clean up immediately

When you get home or are in a safe place, change your clothes and take a shower as soon as you can. Volcanic ash may be an excellent skin exfoliant, but you will continue to breathe it in while it’s on you or your clothes. Those with sensitive skin may suffer excessive irritation and itchiness. If feasible, wash your vehicle promptly. The whole car or bike should be dust- and mud-free before its next use. Put in a new air filter, and change the engine oil, transmission and brake fluids as they have been inevitably contaminated. The rubber seals on the brakes and shocks will deteriorate faster and need replacement sooner the longer they’re used without cleaning. 


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PHOTO: Lian Hammer Dumas
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