Bulletin of Volcanology

, Volume 72, Issue 9, pp 1077–1092 | Cite as

Mineralogical analyses and in vitro screening tests for the rapid evaluation of the health hazard of volcanic ash at Rabaul volcano, Papua New Guinea

  • Jennifer S. Le Blond
  • Claire J. Horwell
  • Peter J. Baxter
  • Sabina A. K. Michnowicz
  • Maura Tomatis
  • Bice Fubini
  • Pierre Delmelle
  • Christina Dunster
  • Herman Patia
Research Article


The continuous ash and gas emissions from the Tavurvur cone in Rabaul caldera, Papua New Guinea, during 2007–08, raised concerns regarding how exposure would affect the respiratory health of nearby populations and impact on the environment. As part of a formal evaluation of the effects of volcanic emissions on public health, we investigated the potential health hazard of the ash using a suite of selected mineralogical analyses and in vitro toxicity screening tests. The trachy-andesitic ash comprised 2.1–6.7 vol.% respirable (sub-4 μm diameter) particles. The crystalline silica content was 1.9–5.0 wt.% cristobalite (in the bulk sample) with trace amounts of quartz and/or tridymite. Scanning electron microscopy showed that the ash particles were angular with sparse, fibre-like particles (∼3–60 μm max. diameter) observed in some samples, which we confirmed to be CaSO4 (gypsum, at <6 wt.% in the bulk samples) and not asbestiform fibres. The ash specific surface area was low (0.1–2.7 m2 g−1). The leached solution from one of the ash samples was slightly acidic (pH 5.6), but did not contain high levels of toxic metals (such as F, Cu, Zn, Mn, As, Ni and Cd) when compared to previously tested volcanic ash leachates. Ash samples generated potentially-harmful hydroxyl radicals through an iron-mediated catalytic reaction, in the range of 0.15–2.47 μmol m−2 (after 30 min of reaction). However, measurement of particle oxidative capacity (potential oxidative stress reaction using ascorbic acid) and silica-like injury to red blood cells (erythrolysis assay, i.e. measurement of cell death) nevertheless revealed low biological reactivity. The findings suggest that acute exposure to the ash would have a limited potential to exacerbate pre-existing conditions such as asthma or chronic bronchitis, and the potential for chronic exposure leading to silicosis was low.


Public health Hazard assessment Rabaul Volcanic ash Multidisciplinary 



JSL’s work is funded by a NERC studentship (NER/S/A/2006/14107). CJH acknowledges a NERC Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (NE/C518081/2). PJB was funded by the World Health Organization (WHO). Thanks to: William Rose (Michigan Technological University, US) for kindly providing Lang (L5); Nick Marsh at Leicester University for XRF analyses; Gordon Cressey and Hazel Hunter, NHM, London for XRD advice and support; Neil Cameron et al. Durham University, for BET advice; Raffaello Cioni (Università degli studi di Cagliari, Italy) and Mauro Rosi (Università di Pisa, Italy) for advice and insights into their own work on ejecta samples collected at Rabaul; Jon Pallister (Chief, Volcano Disaster Assistance Program, USGS) for volcanological advice and Catherine Skinner (Department of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University, CT, US) for guidance on fibre characterisation; Ken Donaldson and Fiona Murphy at the MRC Centre for Inflammation Research at the University of Edinburgh, for carrying out the Erythrocyte Lysis (Haemolysis) analysis; Frank Kelly at the Lung Biology Group at King’s College, London for advice regarding the oxidative capacity results; Ben Williamson, Camborne School of Mines, for comments and advice and Anna Hansell and Ana Lillian Martin Del Pozzo for helpful reviews of the manuscript The authors would finally like to thank Alan Brooker of Renishaw plc. for the use of their SEM-Raman.

Supplementary material

445_2010_382_MOESM1_ESM.doc (40 kb)
ESM 1 (DOC 39 kb)
445_2010_382_Fig7_ESM.gif (17 kb)
Figure S1

Production of hydroxyl radicals (per unit surface area) for the samples over 60 min. Each sample has an average of at least two experiments with standard error bars (GIF 16 kb)

445_2010_382_MOESM2_ESM.tif (11 mb)
Figure S1 High resolution image file (TIFF 11293 kb)
445_2010_382_Fig8_ESM.gif (25 kb)
Figure S2

Amount of Fe removed as a) Fe2+ and b) total Fe during 9 days of incubation with chelators. The Fe removed is expressed as amount per unit surface area (GIF 24 kb)

445_2010_382_MOESM3_ESM.tif (19.5 mb)
Figure S2 High resolution image file (TIFF 19916 kb)
445_2010_382_Fig9_ESM.gif (14 kb)
Figure S3

Ascorbate depletion in the present of 10 μg ml−1 of ash sample, with a sample of Cerro Negro (1995) as a comparison (GIF 14 kb)

445_2010_382_MOESM4_ESM.tif (10.2 mb)
Figure S3 High resolution image file (TIFF 10482 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jennifer S. Le Blond
    • 1
    • 2
  • Claire J. Horwell
    • 3
  • Peter J. Baxter
    • 4
  • Sabina A. K. Michnowicz
    • 3
  • Maura Tomatis
    • 5
  • Bice Fubini
    • 5
  • Pierre Delmelle
    • 6
  • Christina Dunster
    • 7
  • Herman Patia
    • 8
  1. 1.Department of GeographyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  2. 2.Department of MineralogyNatural History MuseumLondonUK
  3. 3.Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience, Department of Earth SciencesDurham University, Science LabsDurhamUK
  4. 4.Institute of Public HealthUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  5. 5.Dipartimento di Chimica I.F.M., Interdepartmental Center “G. Scansetti” for Studies on Asbestos and other Toxic ParticulatesUniversità degli studi di TorinoTorinoItaly
  6. 6.Environment DepartmentUniversity of YorkHeslingtonUK
  7. 7.Lung Biology Group, Pharmaceutical Science DivisionKing’s College LondonLondonUK
  8. 8.Rabaul Volcano ObservatoryRabaulPapua New Guinea

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