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Indonesia's volcano threatens city

Mount Merapi eruption kills 122, spews ash over Yogyakarta, causing lung problems.

Aditama said air quality tests carried out prior to Friday night’s huge explosion showed relatively normal results. Scientists are now working on collecting new data, he said. Meanwhile, the government has distributed hundreds of thousands of surgical masks to evacuees and residents, he said.

“Yeah, those masks are almost worthless,” said Dr. Ralph Delfino, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine’s School of Medicine. “I mean, I would still wear one, but people need proper masks.”

The volcanic dust itself is a two-headed beast.

Of primary health concern are minuscule particles of silica — essentially superfine sand or rock — that can enter the lungs and cause irritation and infection, particularly for people with existing respiratory problems. But also troubling is the high concentration of sulfuric acid that the volcanic eruptions have produced.

Sulfuric acid can burn and irritate eyes and skin, and may also serve as a noxious “coating” for the tiny silica particles being breathed in, forming a dual attack on people’s lungs.

Human lungs are generally pretty good at expelling silica and other matter, Delfino said. Tiny, hair-like structures called cilia usually “brush” foreign objects up and out of the lungs, where the matter is trapped in mucus and coughed up.

That process can irritate the lungs, however, and cause swelling and inflammation making it hard for the patient to breathe. Continued exposure to silica can also cause an illness called silicosis, which can be fatal.

In the stifling heat of Maguwoharjo stadium Saturday, 18-month-old Rifan Affandi has been coughing since his family fled Friday night’s eruption in panic.

Rifan and his mother Purwanti scrambled away from their previous evacuation camp in the dark chaos of Friday night as soil-like material rained down around them and the smell of sulfur poured down the mountain.

They now both have masks, but on Saturday morning, like most of the evacuees, had abandoned them to better enjoy the little breeze floating across the sea of people.

By Saturday afternoon, Mount Merapi had stood silent for almost 24 hours and the city of Yogyakarta had begun to regain some of the vibrancy for which it is famous.

Restaurants and shops buzzed with turquoise-blue masked faces and thousands of hoses sprayed the hot streets to tame the ash while residents waited, calmly, to see if the worst is now over.