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Durham University

Department of Earth Sciences


Publication details for Prof. Claire Horwell

Horwell, C.J., Sparks, R.S.J., Brewer, T.S., Llewellin, E.W. & Williamson, B.J. (2003). Characterization of respirable volcanic ash from the Soufrière Hills volcano, Montserrat, with implications for human health hazards. Bulletin of Volcanology 65(5): 346-362.

Author(s) from Durham


Volcanic ash, generated in the long-lived eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano, Montserrat, is shown to contain respirable (sub-4 µm) particles and cristobalite, a crystalline silica polymorph. Respirable particles of cristobalite can cause silicosis, raising the possibility that volcanic ash is a respiratory health hazard. This study considers some of the main factors which affect human exposure to respirable volcanic ash, namely, the composition and proportions of respirable ash, and the composition and concentrations of airborne suspended particulates. The composition, size distribution and proportion (by weight) of respirable particles in representative samples of the Soufrière Hills tephra (dome-collapse ash-fall deposits, dome-collapse pyroclastic-flow matrix, Vulcanian explosion ash and mixed ash) have been characterized. Dome-collapse ash-fall deposits are significantly richer in respirable particles (12 wt%) than the other tephra samples, in particular the matrices of dome-collapse pyroclastic-flow deposits (3 wt%). Within the respirable fraction, dome-collapse ash contains the highest proportion of crystalline silica particles (20–27 number%, of which 97 wt% is cristobalite), compared with other primary tephra types (0.4–5.6 number%). This enrichment of crystalline silica in the dome-collapse ash is most pronounced in the very fine particle fraction (sub-2 µm). The results are explained as being due to significant size fractionation during fragmentation of pyroclastic flows, resulting in a fines-depleted dome-collapse matrix and a fines-rich dome-collapse ash deposit. For all sample types, the sub-4 µm fraction comprises 45–55 wt% of the sub-10 µm fraction. Aeolian deposit, lahar deposit and airborne samples of suspended ash, collected on filters, were characterized. These samples show enrichment of crystalline silica in the respirable fraction (10–18 number%). The results are consistent with ash in the environment having a mixed origin but originating predominantly from dome-collapse eruptions. The reworked ash, however, contains low proportions of respirable ash (~3 wt%) compared to primary ash samples. The concentration of ash particles re-suspended by road vehicles on Montserrat is found to decrease exponentially with height above the ground, indicating higher exposure for children compared with adults: PM 4 concentration at 0.9 m (height of two-year-old child) is 3 times that at 1.8 m (adult height). The composition of the re-suspended road particles is similar to that re-suspended by the wind.