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Durham University

Durham University News


Researching health hazards of volcanic emissions

(2 January 2019)

Respiratory protection during Merapi eruption Indonesia 2010 Credit: Boy Harjanto

There are 1,500 active volcanoes worldwide and Kīlauea volcano in Hawaii is one of the most active. In 2018, eruptions from Kīlauea intensified significantly.

Dr Claire Horwell, in our Department of Earth Sciences, has been providing public information on the health impacts of eruptions, including the smog from Kilauea, known as “vog”, in collaboration with the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory. Here she explains her work.

How do you assess the respiratory hazards of volcanic ash?

During an eruption crisis, it can be very challenging to conduct medical surveillance to find out if the ash emissions are causing a health impact. Using geochemical and toxicological analyses, however, we can rapidly determine the potential respiratory hazard of the ash. For example, we can assess the particle size distribution of the ash so that we can quickly say if the ash has an inhalable component – if it is too large to inhale then it can’t have a respiratory impact!

We can use sophisticated instrumentation such as laser diffractometers or, if these are not available, even basic sieves can give an indication of the hazard.

Another critical technique is X-ray diffraction which allows us to determine the presence and quantity of crystalline silica in the ash, which has the potential to be devastatingly pathogenic, as seen in thousands of miners who have developed silicosis and lung cancer.

We’re not yet sure if the silica in ash will cause such diseases, but we need to be aware if it is in the ash so that civil protection managers can take precautionary steps to protect communities.

How do you gather evidence of the local experience of living near a volcano? 

I use social science methodology for this element of my research, and collaborate with colleagues from our Psychology, Anthropology and Sociology departments to conduct focus groups, interviews and questionnaires.

We have worked with communities in Hawaii, Japan, Mexico and Indonesia to find out what actions people take to protect themselves from volcanic emissions. We also establish whether these actions relate to official advice, and the cultural and behavioural influences on why people are willing (or not) to take these actions.

What do you do with the evidence provided by the medical surveillance and the community groups?

We use it to inform the public and civil protection managers about the health hazards of volcanic emissions, and how communities can prepare and protect themselves. We have created a variety of materials including videos, pamphlets and posters all of which can be downloaded from the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network website. During the crisis at Kīlauea volcano, I worked with State and Federal agencies on the provision of evidence-based public information on the impacts of “vog”. This was done through our Vog Dashboard (which is a portal of information) which we updated on a daily basis, and recently highlighted both the Vog Dashboard and the IVHHN website, as primary sources of information for communities in Hawaii.

* Dr Howell is an Associate Professor in our Department of Earth Sciences and founder and director of the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network, the umbrella organisation for volcanic health research and dissemination.

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