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Volcanic Pollution – a threat to public health.

Mon, 19 Apr 2021, 20:24
20:24 PM | BY: EW
Lava erupts from a fissure in Iceland’s Holuhraun lava field on 4 September 2014 – vast quantities of sulphur dioxide were also released during this eruption, converted to fine particles that caused an increase in respiratory disease in the Icelandic population (Image: Tom Pfeiffer, 2014).
Lava erupts from a fissure in Iceland’s Holuhraun lava field on 4 September 2014 – vast quantities of sulphur dioxide were also released during this eruption, converted to fine particles that caused an increase in respiratory disease in the Icelandic population (Image: Tom Pfeiffer, 2014).
New research published by researchers from the University of Leeds and the University of Iceland indicates a strong link between volcanic pollution and an increase in respiratory diseases, specifically to those living in volcanic regions. The study used the 2014-2015 Holuhraun lava eruption as its key case study.

As explained by the study's co-lead author, Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya, 'Volcanoes are a significant source of air pollution, but of course it's a source that cannot be controlled. Large volcanic eruptions can cause harmful air pollution both immediately, and also when the plume returns to the same area, which may happen without it triggering air pollution alerts.'

The Holuhraun eruption released 11 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere which spread across Iceland and the North Atlantic region. The eruption lasted 6 months, and during this time, residents of Iceland's capital, Reykjavík, were repeatedly exposed to the young and mature plumes – the first time a population of a considerable size and density could be assessed following major volcanic activity, thus making it a suitable case study.

An earlier publication by these scientists, published in 2017, traced the evolution of the volcanic plume chemistry, finding that the plume had been swept by air currents towards the UK and mainland Europe before circling back to Icelandic cities and towns. During this process, the plume composition matured as it remained in the atmosphere – meaning that the volcanic sulphur dioxide converted to very fine particles capable of penetrating deep into the lungs and causing serious health implications. Due to the sulphur dioxide levels being reduced (gas converted to particles), concentrations therefore appeared within European Commission air standards and as a result, no health advisory message was in place in Iceland for the returning plume.

The 2021 updated research found that following this eruption, incidents of respiratory disease in Iceland rose by almost 25%, and the dispensing of asthma medication increased by a fifth.

Findings show that prolonged eruptions such as Holuhraun, with simultaneously circulating young and mature plumes, increase the harmful health effects on those living in volcanic regions. This 'pollution return'is currently not factored into responses to public health threats from volcanoes.

This research makes a critical recommendation that 'future Government responses to volcanic air pollution globally consider both the implications to health caused by the initial eruptions, but also those of the returning plumes with additional threats to health.'

The new findings of this fundamental study highlight the health risks of pollutants lingering in the atmosphere, and the implications for monitoring emissions from volcanic activity. They showcase the global need for health risk assessments and population safety management following volcanic eruptions.

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