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Assessment of the exposure of islanders to ash from the Soufriere Hills volcano, Montserrat, British West Indies
  1. A Searl1,
  2. A Nicholl1,
  3. P J Baxter2
  1. 1Institute of Occupational Medicine, 8 Roxburgh Place, Edinburgh EH8 9SU, UK
  2. 2Department of Public Health and Primary Care, Institute of Public Health, University of Cambridge, Robinson Way, Cambridge CB2 2SR, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr A Searl, Institute of Occupational Medicine, 8 Roxburgh Place, Edinburgh EH8 9SU, UK;


Background and Aims: The Soufriere Hills volcano, Montserrat, has been erupting since July 1995 and volcanic ash has fallen on the island throughout most of the eruption. The ash contains substantial quantities of respirable particles and unusually large amounts (15–20%) of the crystalline silica mineral, cristobalite. The purpose of the surveys described here, undertaken between December 1996 and April 2000, was to determine levels of personal exposure of islanders to volcanic ash and cristobalite in order to inform advice on the associated risks to health and the measures required to reduce exposure.

Methods: Surveys of personal exposure to respirable dust and cristobalite were undertaken using cyclone samplers. In addition, direct reading instruments (DUSTTRAK) were used to monitor ambient air concentrations of PM10 at fixed sites and also to provide information about exposures to airborne particles associated with selected activities.

Results: Environmental concentrations of airborne ash have been greatest in the areas where the most ash has been deposited and during dry weather. Individual exposure to airborne ash was related to occupation, with the highest exposures among gardeners, cleaners, roadworkers, and police at roadside checkpoints. During 1997 many of these individuals were exposed to concentrations of cristobalite that exceeded the ACGIH recommended occupational exposure limit. Since the population became confined to the north of the island in October 1997, even those in relatively dusty occupations have received exposures to cristobalite well below this limit.

Conclusions: Most of the 4500 people who have remained on island since the eruption began have not been exposed to sufficiently high concentrations of airborne dust for long enough to be at risk of developing silicosis. However, more than a dozen individuals continued to experience frequent high occupational exposures to volcanic ash, some of whom may have had sufficient exposure to crystalline silica to be at risk of developing mild silicosis. If volcanic activity were to deposit further ash over the occupied areas of the island during the coming years, the risks of silicosis will become more substantial.

  • volcanic ash
  • exposure assessment
  • respiratory health
  • silicosis
  • ACGIH, American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists
  • BMRC, British Medical Research Council
  • DoH, Department of Health
  • HSE, Health and Safety Executive
  • IARC, International Agency for Research on Cancer
  • MEL, maximum exposure limit
  • MVO, Montserrat Volcano Observatory
  • TLV, threshold limit value

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