PAHO Panel on Health Impact of Volcanic Eruptions

ArticlePublicationIconThe eruption of the Cerro Negro volcano near León, Nicaragua, on 9 April 1992 distributed an estimated 1.7 million tons of ash over a 200 square kilometer area. An assessment was conducted to evaluate the health effects on approximately 300,000 residents, using routine data obtained by the national epidemiologic surveillance system. It was found that rates of visits to health care facilities for acute diarrheal and respiratory illnesses increased in two study communities, one within and one near the disaster zone. Specifically, visits for acute diarrhea were nearly 6 times more numerous than before the eruption in both communities, while visits for acute respiratory diseases were 3.6 times more frequent in Malpaisillo (the community near the disaster zone) and 6.0 times more frequent in Telica (the community within it). Most of the visits were for infants and children less than 5 years old. Increased diarrheal disease morbidity, which commonly occurs after volcanic eruptions, demands detailed investigation of the type and quality of water supplies following heavy ashfall. Ash-related respiratory problems should be further examined to determine the spectrum of such diseases and the timing of illness onsets among infants and other special population subgroups. Data collected on health conditions before and after an eruption by passive surveillance can be used to detect eruption-related morbidity. Systems already in place, such as Nicaragua's national epidemiologic surveillance system, can be modified or extended to increase their sensitivity to new cases and hence their ability to provide appropriate notification to medical relief agencies.

pdf  Public health surveillance after a volcanic eruption: Lessons from Cerro Negro, Nicaragua, 1992 (1.03 MB)
Professor Erick K. Noji, M.D.

ArticlePublicationIconStudies of the respiratory health effects of different types of volcanic ash have been undertaken only in the last 40 years, and mostly since the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. This review of all published clinical, epidemiological and toxicological studies, and other work known to the authors up to and including 2005, highlights the sparseness of studies on acute health effects after eruptions and the complexity of evaluating the long-term health risk (silicosis, non-specific pneumoconiosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) in populations from prolonged exposure to ash due to persistent eruptive activity. The acute and chronic health effects of volcanic ash depend upon particle size (particularly the proportion of respirable-sized material), mineralogical composition (including the crystalline silica content) and the physicochemical properties of the surfaces of the ash particles, all of which vary between volcanoes and even eruptions of the same volcano, but adequate information on these key characteristics is not reported for most eruptions. 

pdf  The respiratory health hazards of volcanic ash: a review for volcanic risk mitigation (525.65 kB)

Claire J. Horwell . Peter J. Baxter

ArticlePublicationIconRegular eruptions from Sakurajima volcano, Japan, repeatedly cover local urban areas with volcanic ash. The frequency of exposure of local populations to the ash led to substantial concerns about possible respiratory health hazards, resulting in many epidemiological and toxicological studies being carried out in the 1980s. However, very few mineralogical data were available for determination of whether the ash was sufficiently fine to present a respiratory hazard. In this study, we review the existing studies and carry out mineralogical, geochemical and toxicological analyses to address whether the ash from Sakurajima has the potential to cause respiratory health problems. The results show that the amount of respirable (<4 m) material produced by the volcano is highly variable in different eruptions (1.1-18.8 vol.%). The finest samples derive from historical, plinian eruptions but considerable amounts of respirable material were also produced from the most recent vulcanian eruptive phase (since 1955). The amount of cristobalite, a crystalline silica polymorph which has the potential to cause chronic respiratory diseases, is ~3-5 wt.% in the bulk ash. Scanning electron microscope and transmission electron microscope imaging showed no fibrous particles similar to asbestos particles. Surface reactivity tests showed that the ash did not produce significant amounts of highly reactive hydroxyl radicals (0.09-1.35 ml 2 at 30 min.) in comparison to other volcanic ash types. A basic toxicology assay to assess the ability of ash to rupture the membrane of red blood cells showed low propensity for hemolysis. The findings suggest that the potential health hazard of the ash is low, but exposure and respiratory conditions should still be monitored given the high frequency and durations of exposure.

pdf  Sakurajima volcano: a physico-chemical study of the health consequences of long-term exposure to volcanic ash (2.08 MB)
S. E. Hillman & C. J. Horwell & A. L. Densmore &
D. E. Damby & B. Fubini & Y. Ishimine & M. Tomatis