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Dental fluorosis linked to degassing of Ambrym volcano, Vanuatu: a novel exposure pathway

Abstract

Ambrym in Vanuatu is a persistently degassing island volcano whose inhabitants harvest rainwater for their potable water needs. The findings from this study indicate that dental fluorosis is prevalent in the population due to fluoride contamination of rainwater by the volcanic plume. A dental survey was undertaken of 835 children aged 6–18 years using the Dean’s Index of Fluorosis. Prevalence of dental fluorosis was found to be 96% in the target area of West Ambrym, 71% in North Ambrym, and 61% in Southeast Ambrym. This spatial distribution appears to reflect the prevailing winds and rainfall patterns on the island. Severe cases were predominantly in West Ambrym, the most arid part of the island, and the most commonly affected by the volcanic plume. Over 50 km downwind, on a portion of Malakula Island, the dental fluorosis prevalence was 85%, with 36% prevalence on Tongoa Island, an area rarely affected by volcanic emissions. Drinking water samples from West Ambrym contained fluoride levels from 0.7 to 9.5 ppm F (average 4.2 ppm F, n = 158) with 99% exceeding the recommended concentration of 1.0 ppm F. The pathway of fluoride-enriched rainwater impacting upon human health as identified in this study has not previously been recognised in the aetiology of fluorosis. This is an important consideration for populations in the vicinity of degassing volcanoes, particularly where rainwater comprises the primary potable water supply for humans or animals.

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Acknowledgments

We are grateful for the support and assistance of the Vanuatu Department of Geology, Mines, and Water Resources, and cooperation of the Department of Health. Thanks go to all the elders, parents, and teachers who helped and participated in this study. Special thanks to the 835 children who so willingly, or shyly, or with great courage, showed RJC their smiles (or at least their teeth). Thanks also to Gareth Salt, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, and Glenys Wallace and Ross Wallace, Institute of Natural Resources, Massey University, for technical analyses; Alasdair Noble, Institute of Information Sciences and Technology, Massey University, for statistical input; Anna Hansell, Imperial College, London; Andrew Allibone, Rodinian; and Steve Baker, AECOM, for discussion and diagrammatic input. We acknowledge the financial support for this project which was co-funded by the Foundation for Research, Science, and Technology research grant (FRST MAUX0401), and the UNESCO Office for the South Pacific, and additional support for RJC from the Murray Scholarship, Miller Massey Scholarship, and the Bank of New Zealand Postgraduate Scholarship. Many thanks to the two anonymous reviewers whose comments helped to produce a fuller and more comprehensive paper. This project has been reviewed and approved by the Massey University Human Ethics Committee, Palmerston North Application 04/157. If you have any concerns about the ethics of this research, please contact Sylvia Rumball, Chair, Massey University Campus Human Ethics Committee: PN telephone +64 6 350 5249, email: humanethicspn@massey.ac.nz.

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Allibone, R., Cronin, S.J., Charley, D.T. et al. Dental fluorosis linked to degassing of Ambrym volcano, Vanuatu: a novel exposure pathway. Environ Geochem Health 34, 155–170 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10653-010-9338-2

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Keywords

  • Vanuatu
  • Fluorosis
  • Volcanic gas
  • Fluoride
  • Rainwater
  • Health