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Communities living near active volcanoes may be exposed to respiratory hazards from volcanic ash. Understanding their perception of the risks and the actions they take to mitigate against those risks is important for developing effective communication strategies. To investigate this issue, the first comparative study of risk perceptions and use of respiratory protection was conducted on 2003 residents affected by active volcanoes from three countries: Japan (Sakurajima volcano), Indonesia (Merapi and Kelud volcanoes) and Mexico (Popocatépetl volcano).

The study was designed to test the explanatory value of a theoretical framework which hypothesized that use of respiratory protection (i.e., facemask) would be motivated by two cognitive constructs from protection motivation theory: threat appraisal (i.e., perceptions of harm/ worry about ash inhalation) and coping appraisal (i.e., beliefs about mask efficacy). Using structural equation modelling (SEM), important differences in the predictive ability of the constructs were found between countries.

For example, perceptions of harm/ worry were stronger predictors of mask use in Japan and Indonesia than they were in Mexico where beliefs about mask efficacy were more important. The SEM also identified differences in the demographic variants of mask use in each country and how they were mediated by the cognitive constructs. Findings such as these highlight the importance of contextualising our understanding of protection motivation and, thus, the value of developing targeted approaches to promote precautionary behaviour.

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