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As if we all did not have enough to worry about, increasing volcanic activity around the world poses a serious danger to lung health. You don't have to live in the shadow of a volcano to experience health risk, especially if the explosion is in Iceland.

It has been about three years since the explosion of Iceland's unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano disrupted air traffic to Europe and around the world for several weeks in 2010. While stories about stranded travelers dominated the headlines at the time, only in the three years since have epidemiologists gained a clear picture of the health effects of this and other volcanic explosions.

Eyjafjallajökull's Effects on Local Health

Not everyone in Europe was exposed to fallout from the Icelandic volcanic explosion, but millions of people from eastern Iceland to Ireland, the UK, Scandinavia, and even France and Spain were. Health effects of the explosion lasted for months. Problems from ash, however, were most keenly felt in Iceland.

Researchers at the University of Iceland interviewed 72% of the population of southeastern Iceland six to nine months after the eruption. They were able to compare the experiences of people in southeastern Iceland, which received heavy amounts of ash, and southwestern Iceland, where prevailing winds kept skies clear. Breathing in toxic ash turned out to have significant health effects.

In the 12 months after the explosion, Icelanders in the fallout zone:

  • 110% to 230% more likely to have had shortness of breath.
  • 110% to 580% more likely to experience tightness in the chest.
  • 130% to 250% more likely to have coughed up phlegm.
  • 170% to 390% more likely to have had persistent dry cough.
  • 200% to 410% more likely to have experienced eye irritation.
  • 340% to 650% more likely to have experienced psychological problems if they had other symptoms, but only up to 70% more likely to have experienced psychological problems if they did not have physical symptoms of ash exposure.

The Icelandic experience seems to point out that when people in close proximity to a volcanic explosion begin to notice problems breathing, cough, phlegm, and eye irritation, then they tend to "flip out." Perhaps Icelanders have a more stoic attitude toward volcanic eruptions that elsewhere in the world, but the mere explosion of the mountain did not, by and large, cause unusually large numbers of consultations with mental health practitioners. 

The toxic effects of the Icelandic volcano's ash, however, spread across the North Atlantic even to Europe. And chemical studies of the ash found that it could remain a major risk to health even a continent away from the explosion and even months or years after the fine particles enter the jet stream.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Carlsen HK, Hauksdottir A, Valdimarsdottir UA, Gíslason T, Einarsdottir G, Runolfsson H, Briem H, Finnbjornsdottir RG, Gudmundsson S, Kolbeinsson TB, Thorsteinsson T, Pétursdóttir G. Health effects following the Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption: a cohort study. BMJ Open. 2012 Nov 8.2(6). doi:pii: e001851. 10.1136/bmjopen-2012-001851. Print 2012.
  • Gislason SR, Hassenkam T, Nedel S, Bovet N, Eiriksdottir ES, Alfredsson HA, Hem CP, Balogh ZI, Dideriksen K, Oskarsson N, Sigfusson B, Larsen G, Stipp SL. Characterization of Eyjafjallajokull volcanic ash particles and a protocol for rapid risk assessment. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 May 3.108(18):7307-12. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1015053108. Epub 2011 Apr 25.
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