Potential health impacts from sulphur dioxide and sulphate exposure in the UK resulting from an Icelandic effusive volcanic eruption

Clare Heaviside, Claire Witham, Sotiris Vardoulakis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (Scopus)


Ash, gases and particles emitted from volcanic eruptions cause disruption to air transport, but also have negative impacts on respiratory and cardiovascular health. Exposure to sulphur dioxide (SO2) and sulphate (SO4) aerosols increases the risk of mortality, and respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions. Ash and gases can be transported over large distances and are a potential public health risk. In 2014–15, the Bárðarbunga fissure eruption at Holuhraun, Iceland was associated with high emissions of SO2 and SO4, detected at UK monitoring stations. We estimated the potential impacts on the UK population from SO2 and SO4 associated with a hypothetical large fissure eruption in Iceland for mortality and emergency hospital admissions. To simulate the effects of different weather conditions, we used an ensemble of 80 runs from an atmospheric dispersion model to simulate SO2 and SO4 concentrations on a background of varying meteorology. We weighted the simulated exposure data by population, and quantified the potential health impacts that may result in the UK over a 6-week period following the start of an eruption. We found in the majority of cases, the expected number of deaths resulting from SO2 over a 6-week period total fewer than ~100 for each model run, and for SO4, in the majority of cases, the number totals fewer than ~200. However, the 6-week simulated period with the highest SO2 was associated with 313 deaths, and the period with the highest SO4 was associated with 826 deaths. The single 6-week period relating to the highest combined SO2 and SO4 was associated with 925 deaths. Over a 5-month extended exposure period, upper estimates are for 3350 deaths, 4030 emergency cardiovascular and 6493 emergency respiratory hospitalizations. These figures represent a worst-case scenario and can inform health protection planning for effusive volcanic eruptions which may affect the UK in the future.

Original languageEnglish
Article number145549
Pages (from-to)1-21
Number of pages21
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 20 Jun 2021
Externally publishedYes


Dive into the research topics of 'Potential health impacts from sulphur dioxide and sulphate exposure in the UK resulting from an Icelandic effusive volcanic eruption'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this