Industry Certified Masks Offer Better Protection from Volcanic Ash


The research carried out in partnership with IOM, and Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience at Durham University, UK tested a range of respiratory protection frequently used by communities affected by volcanic ash, including bandanas, surgical masks and more sophisticated industry-certified ‘N95’ masks.

In recent months, erupting volcanoes have affected Hawaii, Guatemala and Bali. Volcanic ash can induce symptoms such as coughing, breathlessness and wheezing as well as exacerbate pre-existing conditions such as asthma and bronchitis.

The results show that surgical masks, while having good filtration, usually fit so poorly that they are less effective than industry-certified masks, which are designed to fit well. The research also showed that cloth materials, like bandanas and T-shirts, commonly used as an informal method of respiratory protection, are very poor at filtering particles.

Dr Horwell, from the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience at Durham University, UK said: “Surgical masks are a commonly distributed form of respiratory protection and our study raises important questions around this, and the need for agencies to provide information regarding their effectiveness.

“Our study provides recommendations based on solid evidence, which are now informing aid agencies, health departments, and individuals about the most effective forms of protection against volcanic ash. These recommendations are also helping communities avoid developing a false sense of security from wearing protection that may not be as effective as they think.”

The team have used the results of their study to develop recommended actions which are now available on the website of the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network, the umbrella organisation for research and public dissemination on volcano health issues, which is run by Dr Horwell.

Dr Karen Galea, IOM, explained: “When respiratory protection is distributed to communities affected by volcanic ash, there is not necessarily any advice or training given on how to achieve the best facial fit.

“Overall, the industry-certified N95 masks performed best. However, these masks are not without their challenges. Not only do they tend to cost more than commonly distributed surgical masks but, also, they are often bulkier, giving rise to logistical challenges around storage.

“Our volunteers did observe the industry-certified masks as being uncomfortable to wear but perceived this mask as providing the most protection due to sturdiness and fit.”

The study, published in two papers in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, is part of the Health Interventions in Volcanic Eruptions (HIVE) project, funded by ELRAH’s Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises Programme which aims to improve health outcomes by strengthening the evidence base for public health interventions in humanitarian crises

The team are presenting their findings at two major conferences this year; the Cities on Volcanoes 10 conference in Naples, Italy and the 9th International Conference on the Science of Exposure Assessment (x2018) in Manchester, UK.

The HIVE project, of which this study has been a part, has also conducted social surveys with affected communities to understand the factors that influence whether people will wear respiratory protection. The social surveys were carried out in partnership with the University of Indonesia, Kagoshima University, Japan and Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico.

Useful web links
Institute for Hazard, Risk and Resilience, Durham University

Department of Earth Sciences, Durham University

International Volcanic Health Hazard Network

International Volcanic Health Hazard Network ash protection pages

Health Interventions in Volcanic Eruptions (HIVE) project webpage:

Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) Programme