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Volcanic 'plumerang' could impact human health

Posted on 15/06/2017

A new study has found a previously undetected potential health risk from the high concentration of small particles found in a boomerang-like return of a volcanic plume.

A team of scientists, including Dr Amy Donovan (Department of Geography) traced the evolution of the plume chemistry from the 2014-2015 Icelandic Holuhraun lava field eruption and found a second type of plume that impacts air quality.

This second plume had circled back to Icelandic cities and towns long after the health warning about the initial plume had been lifted.

Lead author, Dr Ilyinskaya from the Institute of Geophysics and Tectonics at Leeds University, said: “The return of this second, mature, plume, which we referred to as a ‘plumerang’, showed that the volcanic sulphur had undergone a gas-to-particle conversion by spending time in the atmosphere.

“Our samples showed that the mature plume was very rich in fine particles which contained high concentrations of sulphuric acid and trace metals. The concentrations of these trace metals did not reduce as the plume matured and included heavy metals found in human-made air pollution that are linked to negative health effects.

“On at least 18 days during the six-month long eruption the plumerang was in the capital city of Reykjavík, while the official forecast showed ‘no plume’.”

The fine particles found in the plumerang are so small they can penetrate deep into the lungs, potentially causing serious health problems such as exacerbating asthma attacks.

It is estimated that short and long-term exposure to these types of fine particles, from both human-made and natural sources, cause over three million premature deaths globally per year. Such exposure remains the single largest environmental health risk in Europe.

donovan-plume

Dr Amy Donovan said: ‘The study is partly based on a field campaign in Iceland in January 2015, in which we made gas and aerosol measurements of the volcanic plume at Holuhraun. I carried out the ground-based gas measurements, which supplemented work I had done in collaboration with the Icelandic Met Office in September 2014. The field conditions in January were very limiting for the techniques that we usually use to make such measurements - they rely on ultraviolet light, which is in short supply in January in Iceland - but we were able to make measurements using other techniques instead, particularly in situ sampling methods.’

The study, published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters on 9 June 2017, recommends that in future gas-rich eruptions both the young and mature plumes should be considered when forecasting air pollution and the dispersion and transport pattern of the plume. 

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