The Eyjafjallajokull (Island-mountain-glacier) volcano in Iceland is relatively small and holds a low position on the list of dangerous and/or life threatening volcanoes. However, the nature of a volcanic eruption which begins deep below a glacier is extremely explosive in its initial stages as molten rock meets melting ice. The health risks posed by fine ash, volcanic gasses and other debris emitted from such an eruption can be potentially further reaching than those of a volcano producing larger, smoother particles.
The plume of tephra (volcanic debris) ejected high into the atmosphere by Iceland’s volcano contains jagged, microscopic particles of glass-like silica, which, when inhaled, can become deeply lodged in mucous membranes and lung tissues. Long exposure to large quantities of these abrasive particles can cause severe respiratory problems. Health risks decrease as exposure time and quantities inhaled decrease. Asthmatics and those with a history of respiratory disorders are at higher risk of complications from inhaling low levels of this type of volcanic debris.
These irregularly shaped particles have a large surface area on which molecules of volcanic gasses such as fluorine accumulate. Contact with fluorine rich, airborne debris can irritate the eyes causing itching and a burning sensation. Fluorine is toxic when high levels are ingested as in the case of livestock grazing on ash covered pasture and can also leach into waterways, often rendering the water unsuitable for drinking.
The European Food Safety Authority, after conducting an investigation into possible fluorine contamination of food supplies by fallout from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano, concluded that the impact has been negligible. Experts, including those from the World Health Organization also agree that due to its wide dispersion, the low levels of ash anticipated to fall on any particular area outside of Iceland will not pose significant health risks. As the volcanic eruption continues, the ash cloud will be constantly monitored to reassess any changes in its composition and the level of dangerous substances present.
As for the local residents of Iceland, aside from the risks associated with ash fall, the Eyjafjallajokull volcano poses more serious health issues. Those living in the immediate vicinity of the eruption are on constant alert for meltwater from the glacial ice which can gush down into surrounding valleys causing dangerous torrential floods. Sulphur dioxide lingers around the glacial lakes that form during a volcanic eruption. When inhaled in large doses, sulphur dioxide causes inflammation of internal tissues and difficulty in breathing which, over a period of time, can ultimately cause death.
Volcanic eruptions are erratic, so their day to day activity is difficult to predict. Eyjafjallajokull’s previous eruption lasted almost thirteen months and triggered the eruption of its much more explosive neighbour Katla, which lies beneath a substantially larger glacier. A Katla eruption would pose far greater health risks on a much wider scale than its “little sister”, a fact of which the people of Iceland are well aware, and are well prepared.