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Durham University

Department of Earth Sciences


Publication details for Prof. Claire Horwell

Tomašek, I., Damby, D.E., Horwell, C.J., Ayris, P.M., Delmelle, P., Ottley, C.J., Cubillas, P., Casas, A.S., Bisig, C., Petri-Fink, A., Dingwell, D.B., Clift, M.J.D., Drasler, B. & Rothen-Rutishauser, B. (2019). Assessment of the potential for in-plume sulphur dioxide gas-ash interactions to influence the respiratory toxicity of volcanic ash. Environmental Research 179(Part A): 108798.

Author(s) from Durham


Volcanic plumes are complex environments composed of gases and ash particles, where chemical and physical processes occur at different temperature and compositional regimes. Commonly, soluble sulphate- and chloride-bearing salts are formed on ash as gases interact with ash surfaces. Exposure to respirable volcanic ash following an eruption is potentially a significant health concern. The impact of such gas-ash interactions on ash toxicity is wholly un-investigated. Here, we study, for the first time, whether the interaction of volcanic particles with sulphur dioxide (SO2) gas, and the resulting presence of sulphate salt deposits on particle surfaces, influences toxicity to the respiratory system, using an advanced in vitro approach.

To emplace surface sulphate salts on particles, via replication of the physicochemical reactions that occur between pristine ash surfaces and volcanic gas, analogue substrates (powdered synthetic volcanic glass and natural pumice) were exposed to SO2 at 500 °C, in a novel Advanced Gas-Ash Reactor, resulting in salt-laden particles. The solubility of surface salt deposits was then assessed by leaching in water and geochemical modelling. A human multicellular lung model was exposed to aerosolised salt-laden and pristine (salt-free) particles, and incubated for 24 h. Cell cultures were subsequently assessed for biological endpoints, including cytotoxicity (lactate dehydrogenase release), oxidative stress (oxidative stress-related gene expression; heme oxygenase 1 and NAD(P)H dehydrogenase [quinone] 1) and its (pro-)inflammatory response (tumour necrosis factor α, interleukin 8 and interleukin 1β at gene and protein levels).

In the lung cell model no significant effects were observed between the pristine and SO2-exposed particles, indicating that the surface salt deposits, and the underlying alterations to the substrate, do not cause acute adverse effects in vitro. Based on the leachate data, the majority of the sulphate salts from the ash surfaces are likely to dissolve in the lungs prior to cellular uptake.

The findings of this study indicate that interaction of volcanic ash with SO2 during ash generation and transport does not significantly affect the respiratory toxicity of volcanic ash in vitro. Therefore, sulphate salts are unlikely a dominant factor controlling variability in in vitro toxicity assessments observed during previous eruption response efforts.