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Science Wednesday: From Iceland’s Ash, Potential Particle Insights

2010 April 21

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

The recent volcanic eruption in Iceland has focused international attention on tiny particles called aerosols that have been the subject of scientific scrutiny at EPA for decades.

Much of this week’s media frenzy has focused on airport chaos related to the eruption, but the potential health impacts to those breathing the volcanic aerosols also deserve consideration.

Though the particles from Iceland’s plume vary considerably in makeup from the particles EPA typically investigates (from vehicles, factories, and dust), the eruption may contribute to our general understanding of airborne particles and their potential health impacts.

According to Daniel Costa, EPA’s national program director for air research, volcanic ash is not nearly as toxic to the lungs as particles from typical urban sources, like traffic. However, he explained, they “may result in coughing and sneezing,” and may be especially irritating to “asthmatics and people with cardiopulmonary disease.”

Costa and other EPA scientists and grantees have previously studied the health effects of particles from Mount St. Helen’s, a volcano in Washington State that erupted violently in 1980.

According to accounts of the eruption from the National Forest Service, “a mushroom-shaped column of ash rose thousands of feet skyward and drifted downwind, turning day into night as dark, gray ash fell over eastern Washington and beyond.”

While “pound for pound, volcanic ash is much, much less toxic than typical air pollution particles,” Costa said, “…when combined with dust, sulfur dioxide and other gaseous emissions from volcanic emissions may be pretty potent acting through different pathways with the same result.”

After the Mount St. Helen’s eruption, scientists spent years studying, observing and analyzing data from the event. Air pollution experts at EPA believe more could potentially be learned from future studies of Iceland’s far-reaching plume.

volcano_1-usgsBryan Bloomer, atmospheric scientist at EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research, said that “for meteorologists, atmospheric scientists, and climate scientists, it will be interesting to watch.”

“There is a lot to be learned about wind currents from the movement of the plume, the application of remote sensing and satellite imagery to aerosol modeling, and also observations we can make about the effects of the eruption on temperature.”

Shockwaves from the eruption are mostly being felt abroad, but resulting awareness of airborne particles as a health threat should resonate right here at home, where particle pollution of a different sort remains a major environmental policy priority. 

About the Author: Becky Fried is a science writer with EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research and a regular contributor to Science Wednesday.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. armansyahardanis permalink
    April 21, 2010

    So, I am grateful to the scientists who always ask and answer about the indications of the natural phenomenon. Without Them, now- before – and the future, people do not know themselves and also the contains of the universe. They don’t think themselves, families and happiness. They just think and think, until pass away……

  2. Questioner permalink
    April 21, 2010

    I’d like to see the discussion of the quantity of particle & other green house gas emissions from this volcano eruption and compare these emissions from the volcano to man-made emmisions for a typical year.

  3. RAM permalink
    April 22, 2010

    How many places affect for iceland valcona issue.

  4. Becky Fried, EPA permalink
    April 22, 2010

    According to information on the United States Geological Survey (USGS) website,

    “Human activities release more than 130 times the amount of CO2 emitted by volcanoes–the equivalent of more than 8,000 additional volcanoes like Kilauea (Kilauea emits about 3.3 million tonnes/year)! (Gerlach et. al., 2002)”

    This and other information on volcanic gases and their effects can be found here:

    Thanks for your interest!

  5. SpaConsultant permalink
    April 22, 2010

    Thank god its over

  6. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    April 25, 2010

    Things like wind patterns can be important to how both volcanic ash and human generated pollution from traffic and power plants impact peoples’ health. A key component in smog that causes so many serious health problems for people living by or near major roadways is particulate matter from diesel engines. Studying wind patterns at the volcano maybe able to inform us on things here like particulate pollution drift and that would be a great thing. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

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