The volcanic plume from one of Iceland’s biggest eruptions of the last 200 years led to an increase in respiratory disease diagnoses by 23 per cent, experts warned.
Experts from the UK and Iceland studied the impact the 2014–15 Holuhraun lava eruption, which spewed out 11 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide over six months.
While the plume originally spread out across Iceland and the Atlantic Ocean towards the UK and Europe, air currents caused it to circle back round to Iceland.
Thus, the team explained, the residents of the capital of Reykjavík, despite being 155 miles (250 km) from the eruption site, were exposed to the pollution repeatedly.
Moreover, as the plume lingered in the atmosphere, its composition matured from gas into particles that penetrate deep into the lungs and cause health problems.
The findings highlight the need for authorities to prepare for health issues derived from such returning emissions in the days following eruptions, the researchers said.
The volcanic plume from one of Iceland’s biggest eruptions of the last 200 years led to an increase in respiratory disease diagnoses by almost a quarter, experts warned. Experts from the UK and Iceland studied the impact the 2014–15 Holuhraun lava eruption (pictured), which spewed out 11 million tonnes of sulphur dioxide over six months (file photo)
THE HOLUHRAUN LAVA ERUPTIONS
Holuhraun is in the Icelandic Highlands, north of Vatnajökull. Its lava field was created by fissure eruptions.
In the early hours of August 29, 2014, a fissure eruption began at the northern end of the Holuhraun field.
Since then, the lava field has spread to an area more than 32 square miles (84 square km) across.
Holuhraun is now Iceland’s largest basaltic lava flow since the Laki eruption in 1783–1784 — which killed 20 per cent of the island’s population.
It continues to spew huge amounts of lava and sulphur dioxide, and may continue to do so for years to come.
‘Volcanoes are a significant source of air pollution, but of course it’s a source that cannot be controlled,’ said paper author and volcanologist Evgenia Ilyinskaya of the the University of Leeds.
‘Large volcanic eruptions can cause harmful air pollution both immediately, and also when the plume returns to the same area.’
This, she explained, ‘may happen without it triggering air pollution alerts.’
‘Our research shows that during prolonged eruptions such as Holuhraun, both young and mature plumes can be circulating at the same time, increasing the harmful health effects on those living in volcanic regions.’
‘This pollution return is not currently factored into responses to the threat to public health caused by volcanoes.’
The team found that exposure to the volcanic plume from the Holuhraun eruption in 2014 was associated with a 23 per cent increase in respiratory disease-related health care use and a 19.3 per cent increase in the dispensing of asthma medications.
The returning, mature plume did not trigger health advisory messages in Iceland because the reduced sulphur dioxide levels meant it no longer fell outside of within European Commission air standards.
It is estimated that some 800 million people across the globe live near active volcanoes and could therefore be affected by volcanically-triggered air pollution.
In fact, Iceland has recently experienced another volcanic event, with Mount Fagradalsfjall undergoing its first lava eruption in some 800 years back in March.
And in the Caribbean, the La Soufrière volcano on the island of St Vincent is presently spewing a 10.6 mile (17 kilometre) -high plume of hot gas and ash into the atmosphere.
Short and long term exposure to fine particles — whether from natural or anthropogenic sources — is thought to cause more than three million premature deaths across the globe each year.
‘Iceland has some of the most complete health care records in the world,’ said paper author and public health expert Hanne Krage Carlsen of the University of Iceland.
‘This was the first time a population of a considerable size and density could be assessed following major volcanic activity,’ she added.
‘This study provides the most robust evidence to date that exposure to a chemically-mature volcanic plume leads to increased use of a country’s health care system.’
‘It also emphasizes that emissions from volcanoes are a region-wide issue, in this case potentially affecting the whole North Atlantic region.’
‘As the Holuhraun plume returned to Iceland, there was increased use of GPs and hospital emergency care units with regards to respiratory diseases. At the same time, there was a lack of public health advice.’
‘We recommend that future Government responses to volcanic air pollution globally considers both the implications to health caused by the initial eruptions, but also those of the returning plumes with additional threats to health.’
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Nature Communications.
WHAT IS ASTHMA?
Asthma is a common but incurable condition which affects the small tubes inside the lungs.
It can cause them to become inflamed, or swollen, which restricts the airways and makes it harder to breathe.
The condition affects people of all ages and often starts in childhood. Symptoms may improve or even go away as children grow older, but can return in adulthood.
Symptoms include wheezing, breathlessness, a tight chest and coughing, and these may get worse during an asthma attack.
Treatment usually involves medication which is inhaled to calm down the lungs.
Triggers for the condition include allergies, dust, air pollution, exercise and infections such as cold or flu.
If you think you or your child has asthma you should visit a doctor, because it can develop into more serious complications like fatigue or lung infections.