What’s on : Lectures

Volcanoes and their Health Hazards

13 Jun 2017
Start time
7:30 PM
Tempest Anderson Hall
Dr Claire Horwell, Dept of Earth Sciences, Durham University

Event Information

Volcanoes and their health hazards

A lecture for the “York Festival of Ideas”

What are the risks to your health if you live in the shadow of a volcano? How do such communities protect themselves and what are their own solutions? Dr Claire Horwell, from Durham University’s Department of Earth Sciences will explore how scientists are finding ways to protect communities from the health hazards of volcanic ash, including using the knowledge and experience of the people affected.

The effects of volcanic eruptions such as Vesuvius in AD79, which destroyed Pompeii and, more recently, Eyjafjallajökull’s disruption of global air travel are well established – but how much do we know about the healthcare risks and hazards for the people who live in the shadow of volcanoes?

Durham University’s Dr Claire Horwell will explain how mineralogical and geochemical techniques can be used to assess the respiratory hazard that comes from volcanic ash and other types of dust such as desert and coal dust. Measurements of exposure to airborne particles are a key part of determining potential hazard, but so also is work to help communities prepare for and protect themselves from future volcanic emissions.

Dr Horwell will describe the gathering of evidence about local experience – often specific to particular volcanoes – and how this is used to supplement and revise official protection advice, which is often too general. Social science techniques that gather community knowledge are being used in partnership with geological expertise to build an evidence base, made available online and through booklets and posters.
In this way communities can make use of information that is specific to the volcanoes in whose shadow they live to provide effective respiratory protection during volcanic eruptions.

Member’s report

Some 9% of the global population live within 100km of an active volcano, many more within more distant range. Some types of volcano present few risks, but explosive (e.g. Plinian) eruptions eject not only lava, gas, and ash, but also other elements, some toxic. Landslides are another acute hazard, but volcanic smog (vog), as in Indonesia, is a chronic health hazard. It is not yet known whether it causes, or whether it only exacerbates, health problems such as asthma, COPD, TB, heart conditions, or even diabetes. Research is ongoing.

Self-help guidance to affected communities has often been ignored for being inappropriate to local conditions. Research on particulate pollution, and the efficacy of different types of mask is essential, but communication and engagement with communities is increasingly undertaken. Social mores, architectural limitations, even religious and spiritual considerations are a factor in successful guidance on protecting oneself from breathing in ash and gas during an eruption. The time taken to analyse the specific risks is then less of a concern.

Carole Smith