Field of Science

Volcanic ash and Bacteria

Volcanic ash can ground planes and, in severe eruptions, it can enter the lungs - but what about the microbe world?

Microorganisms don't fly planes or have lungs, but surely this type of natural disaster must effect them in some way?

A volcanic eruption ash cloud consists mainly of fine rock and glass particles that are quickly expelled into the atmosphere. The ash is then blown via wind systems, and can travel hundreds of miles, until it eventually falls to the ground.

Immediately after the volcanic ash is spewed from the volcano it would be highly doubtful that any bacteria would be able to survive (due to the ash particles being very hot). However, when the ash falls to earth and into the soil it enables the soil to retain more water, thus creating conditions desireable for soil dwelling bacteria to grow. These bacteria replenish the soil's nutrients and therefore make the soil more fertile, with plants and crops benefiting.

However, a few skincare websites that sell volcanic ash/clay state it has antibacterial properties due to it being high in sulphur. This is true due to sulphur having antibacterial properties, however this does not mean grab some volcanic ash from your car windscreen and smear it over yourself - due to only small amounts of ash present it's likely to have little or no effect.

Thanks for reading!

References -

Smallpox - to destroy or not to destroy?

The recent news of the World Health Organization (WHO) deferring the decision to eradicate the smallpox virus until 2014, has begged the question - Why is it still around anyway?

In the 18th-19th centuries, when the disease was rife, there was up to a 30% mortality rate. The disease was characterised by fever, tiredness and a distinctive 'bumpy' rash. The Variola virus that causes Smallpox originated 3,000 years ago in Egypt but was eradicated in 1979 and a highly effective vaccine was developed.
However, some countries (USA and Russia) have stocks of the virus which are used for 'research purposes' and WHO have agreed not to destroy these remaining stocks of viruses...yet.

Countries voted for or against destroying the remaining stocks yesterday with no uniform decision being reached. Iran and 7 other countries were for destroying the virus to prevent accidental release, whereas other countries such as the USA and Russia were against.

Arguments for the eradication of the virus; prevents accidental release, final step in fully eradicating the disease and.. no more smallpox.

However, arguments against eradication include; further research into the virus in case it was to come back or be used as a biological weapon.

But we have a vaccine? - Well if the virus could be slightly genetically modified or mutated, rendering the vaccine useless, then a new vaccine would have to be developed. It's also not possible for anyone to say that they are 100% certain that there are no smallpox strains in the environment.

Personally? We've had these stocks of smallpox for 30 years without the disease being accidentally released, so surely there's no harm in keeping them if they can help research into the disease and other viral diseases?

So, to destroy or not to destroy? (that is the question)
Well the WHO have until 2014 until they have to discuss this topic again...