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Respiratory problems among the population increased markedly in Reykjavik during one of Iceland’s largest volcanic eruptions six years ago. The negative health effects increased most when sulfur dioxide returned from the Atlantic in the form of falling particles.

The current research is based on data on air quality and from care registers in Reykjavik during the large eruption in 2014–2015 from the Icelandic lava field Holuhraun. The eruption spread 11 million tonnes of sulfur dioxide over a very large area.

During the six months that the outbreak lasted, residents of Reykjavik were repeatedly exposed to sulfur dioxide emissions, both in the form of gas and later as precipitating particles.

Increased need for primary care and asthma medicine

Hanne Krage Carlsen, researcher in occupational and environmental medicine at Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, is one of the main responsible for a current scientific publication on health effects in Reykjavik after the volcanic eruption in the journal Nature Communications.

  • This is the first time the health effects in a large population have been studied after a powerful volcanic eruption. We see that high levels of sulfur dioxide in particular increased the need for primary care and asthma medication, and that respiratory diseases increased further when the gas cloud matured across the Atlantic and came back with falling particles, says Hanne Krage Carlsen, who when the study began had a postdoctoral research position in Iceland university.

The study shows that exposure to the fine particles from the mature volcanic cloud led to a total of 11 percent more residents in Reykjavik seeking help in primary care for respiratory problems. The largest increase was seen among older residents, where the increase in primary care contacts was 28 percent. When it comes to prescribing asthma medicine, the largest increase was seen among younger people, where 25 percent more of residents under the age of 18 were prescribed such drugs. Among adults and the elderly, prescribing increased by 13 percent.

Inform the population about risks

During the eruption, gas clouds formed with sulfur dioxide that reached Reykjavik, 250 km from the volcano. The gas clouds drifted further across the North Atlantic towards Europe, and when they returned, the contents of the cloud had, through a chemical process, matured from gas to particles. The process has been described by volcanologist Evgenia Ilyinskaya, a researcher at the University of Leeds and co-author of the publication in Nature Communications.

  • Our research shows that during prolonged eruptions such as Holuhraun, both young and mature volcanic clouds can circulate simultaneously, which increases the harmful health effects for those living in volcanic regions, says Evgenia Ilyinskaya.

The fine particles found in mature volcanic clouds are believed to be able to penetrate and damage the lungs, and for example cause asthma attacks. The chemical maturation process in the volcanic cloud reduced the concentration of sulfur dioxide in the volcanic cloud, and as the content was below the limit value considered harmful, no warnings were issued to the inhabitants of Reykjavik.

The current study highlights the need for decision-making authorities to be prepared to inform the population in the days immediately following volcanic eruptions about the risk of health problems in connection with returning emissions.

This article was published originally by forskning.se

Article source: forskning.se

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