A Spanish official on Wednesday downplayed the risk of toxic gases harming local populations after molten lava from a volcano in the Canary Islands hit the ocean, 10 days after a dramatic eruption that forced thousands to flee.
A vast stream of white-hot lava reached the sea late on Tuesday, sparking fears the contact would release clouds of acidic gas into the air, which could irritate the skin, eyes and respiratory tracts, possibly causing breathing difficulties.
But windy conditions overnight blew the gas towards the sea, reducing the risk, said Ruben Fernandez, a senior official with the Canary Island’s Pevolca volcanic emergency committee.
“We have a strong wind in the area which is blowing the cloud of gases towards the sea, so the risk for the local population is much lower" than initially feared, he told Spain’s public radio.
The Cumbre Vieja volcano straddles a southern ridge in La Palma island, home to 85,000 people, and erupted on September 19, forcing some 6,000 people to flee and destroying hundreds of properties.
Since its eruption, it has spewed out rivers of lava that have slowly crept towards the sea, finally hitting the ocean on Tuesday night just after 11:00 pm (2200 GMT).
Dramatic television images showed a stream of glowing lava cascading off a cliff into the water, churning up huge clouds of vapour and gas.
As it hit the water, the lava quickly built up an impressive deposit “more than 50 metres (164 feet) high", the Spanish Institute of Oceanography tweeted, posting pictures from its research vessel.
Some 300 residents of Tazacorte, a small town on La Palma, were ordered to stay at home early Monday as a precautionary measure to avoid harm from the emissions.
Even before that, the Spanish archipelago had set up an exclusion zone of 3.5 kilometres (two miles) around the site, which also extended two nautical miles into the sea.
A state of natural disaster has been declared on the island, where the molten rock has so far scorched its way across more than 268 hectares (662 acres) of land and destroyed 656 buildings, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Earth Observation Programme.
No deaths have been reported, though during the last two eruptions in 1949 and 1971, three people died, two of them from gas inhalation.
“Since Sunday 19 September, hardly anyone in the Canary Islands has slept and the people of La Palma have been cowering in fear with a tremendous sense of desolation," the islands’ regional head Angel Victor Torres told COPE radio on Wednesday.
He said the devastation had been vast as the lava scorched a massive furrow towards the sea.
“We are talking about lava flows that are 600 metres wide. In all of that area, there is nothing left, the devastation is tremendous," he said, indicating it had dealt a huge blow to banana plantations in the area, one of the islands key industries.
The banana industry “has suffered tremendous damage, we are talking about a third of the banana production of the entire Canary Islands," he said, indicating the current harvest “has been completely lost".
The Spanish government on Tuesday released 10.5 million euros ($12.3 million) in aid for those left homeless by the volcano.
Last week, Torres had estimated the damage would exceed 400 million euros.
The vast columns of smoke and ash pouring into the air has also disrupted air traffic, with the airport closed for 24 hours over the weekend. Although it has since reopened, flights remain suspended.
Experts believe the eruption could last for several weeks, or even months.
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