The Long Term Health Consequences of the Icelandic Volcano

As ash and airborne particulates continue to belch out from the volcano under Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull glacier,  some health experts are turning a worried eye towards the future. The plume from the volcano has spread across the North Sea and dropped untold megatons of microscopic ash, silica and other particulates on the people, livestock and crops of Scandinavia, northern Europe and western Russia.

As the toxic plume drifts farther east it will disseminate and the adverse impact on Alaska, Canada and the United States is thought to be negligible.

The Icelandic volcano has produced a mammoth plume of microscopic basalt ash and silica particles that initially grounded aircraft across continent. It’s now drifting above 30,000 feet  and invisible from the ground.

Known health impact

Volcanic eruptions are known to have a wide range of adverse health effectssome experts assert more than any other natural disaster.

While the island nation of Iceland is undoubtedly exposed to the greatest risk, and concerns about poisonous fluorine harming livestock and crops have already been raised, hundreds of millions of Europeans also face potential health problems from airborne gases and ash residue.

Health experts today, thirty years after the eruption of Mt. St. Helens, know much more about the potential dangers towards health volcanic plumes pose than they did in 1980.  After the violent eruption of the volcano in the state of Washington,  the first serious research into the health hazards of airborne particles carried thousands of miles was launched.

Experts found residue loaded with crystalline silica. That discovery raised concerns that long term exposure to fallout from a volcanic plume dramatically increased the potential of chronic ailments such as silicosis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).  The microscopic remnants of the plume also irritate the airways, leading to increased mucous and inflammation of the lungs.

Follow-up studied conducted after volcanic eruptions in  Sakurajima, Japan, and Soufrière Hills, Montserrat revealed additional adverse health consequences. While the Montserrat ash in itself was only mildly toxic,  the cristobalite concentrations found in its airborne plume had a level of disease producing potential equivalent to mixed coal dusts that cause black lung disease in miners.

Several studies suggest that children exposed to volcanic plume particulates can suffer adverse health effects years after the initial exposure. On of the studies conducted with 350 children measuring the affects of silicosis found a fourfold increase in the likelihood of bronchial wheeze syndrome and determined that increased exercise induced bronchospams.

Agricultural experts point to the longer term effects toxic plumes create on the food chain, including global cooling. They cite the Tambora eruption in Sumbawa Island, Indonesia during 1815 that released megatons of sulfur into the atmosphere. The gases and particulates resulted in a significant drop of mean temperatures throughout the Northern Hemisphere and precipitated disruptions in the fishing industry, the loss of crops, famines and the outbreak of respiratory ailments in Ireland and parts of continental Europe.

Experts differ on health risks

Despite the fact that many European leaders minimized the concerns the World Health Organization raised about health risks from the Icelandic volcano, some have asked how safe can the air be if people are breathing the ‘same stuff’ that can harm jet engines?

Health Blog had those same questions and turned to Dr. Ronald Crystal, chief of pulmonary medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. Crystal ran the pulmonary branch of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in 1980.  He was the medical authority tapped to brief Jimmy Carter on potential health consequences of the Mt. Saint Helens eruption.   

According to Health Blog, ‘Crystal looked at the known impact of inhaling silica. For miners, inhaling silica over many years, at high concentrations, has a definite negative impact: lung diseases including silicosis, also known as pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicavolcanoconiosis (famous for being the longest word in the English language).’

Crystal added that humans breathe all sorts of particles every day and that lungs have a ‘very efficient mechanism for getting rid of them’ known as the mucociliary escalator. When irritated, mucous is generated that captures particles and the cilia expunges it from the lungs. You either cough it up or swallow it.

So in Crystal’s opinion, the volcanic plume over northern Europe is no big deal.

This flies in the face of WHO’s warnings on the 16th of April.  Their spokesman, Daniel Epstein, stated that microscopic ash is potentially dangerous. The inhaled particles enter lungs and lead to respiratory problems.

“We’re very concerned about it,” Epstein said. “These particles when inhaled can reach the lungs and can cause problems … ”  He suggested Europeans consider wearing a mask.

Yet Ken Donaldson, a professor of respiratory toxicology at the University of Edinburgh, tends to echo Dr. Crystal’s feelings, ‘In the great scheme of things, volcanic ash is not all that harmful.’ He asserts that only those in Iceland need be concerned because ‘Once the volcanic particles are in the stratosphere, they’re getting massively diluted because there’s a lot of air and other particles blowing around.’

Heavier ash fall could be a danger

“The particles will eventually settle out, but it may take days or weeks, and at this point it doesn’t seem like it’s going to [impact] continental Europe much , in terms of the size of this eruption,” notes  Tina Neal, a vulcanologist at the Alaska Volcano Observatory in Anchorage. “But we have to watch, because if the eruption intensifies, the ash fall [may increase].”

In the meantime, vulcanologists now worry the Eyjafjallajokull glacier volcano may trigger Iceland’s Katla volcano to erupt. If it does the health experts will have to reassess their opinions.