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December 4, 1981

Mount St Helens Eruptions, May 18 to June 12, 1980An Overview of the Acute Health Impact

Author Affiliations

From the Chronic Diseases Division, Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta (Drs Baxter, Ing, Falk, French, and Stein), The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Morgantown, WVa (Drs Bernstein and Merchant), and the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, Seattle (Dr Allard).

JAMA. 1981;246(22):2585-2589. doi:10.1001/jama.1981.03320220035021

Thirty-five known deaths were caused by the landslide and lateral blast of the May 18 eruption of Mount St Helens and at least 23 persons are missing. In 18 of 23 cases that reached autopsy, asphyxiation from ash inhalation was the cause of death. A rapidly established hospital surveillance system detected increases in the number of emergency room (ER) visits and admissions for asthma and bronchitis in communities with the heaviest ashfall after the May 18 eruption and the eruptions on May 25 and June 12. There were also increases in the number of ER visits for ash-related eye complaints in some areas. Laboratory studies indicated that the May 18 ash was not acutely toxic, but the respirable portion contained 3% to 7% of crystalline free silica, a potential pneumoconiosis hazard to certain heavily exposed occupational groups. Continuing volcanic activity of Mount St Helens and future eruption of other volcanoes in the Cascade Range may pose a variety of health hazards, including blast, ashfalls, flooding, damage to public utilities, and possible psychosocial effects.

(JAMA 1981;246:2585-2589)