The prolonged eruption of the glacier volcano Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland in 2010 released 250 million tons of ash, exposing residents to dangerous levels of the substance. The spread of the volcanic dust and ash caused by this event has since raised concerns about the long-term health risks to vulnerable populations. A recent study by Heidrun Hlodversdottir and her co-authors of the physical and mental health of the local children following the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano suggests that they were more likely to experience respiratory and anxiety issues than those who were not impacted by the eruption, among other negative effects.
The research, published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology, assessed the health impacts of the eruption for a period of three years after the climate event. The authors analyzed both the exposed and non-exposed adult population through questionnaires aimed at examining their children’s and their own perceived health status in 2010, six to nine months after the eruption, as well as three years later.
Hlodversdottir and her co-authors explained in a joint response to GlacierHub that the winds carried the ash across Europe and North Africa, increasing concerns that the eruption could possibly affect the respiratory health of the local population. Precautions for susceptible individuals were issued in Europe by the World Health Organization and national health authorities following the eruption. According to the WHO, health surveillance systems in countries in the WHO European Region detected no exposure of the populations to volcano-related air pollution and no health effects potentially related to volcanic ash following the volcanic eruption, the authors said. However, the south and southeast of Iceland received a great deal of ash and residue during six weeks and several months following the eruption. Thus, the researchers compared data from exposed and non-exposed regions in Iceland. In 2010, they gathered demographic data from each child’s parents and asked questions about property losses. In 2013, those who participated in the study were contacted again for a second evaluation about perceived health status.
In 2010, the study revealed that children who had been exposed to the impacts of the volcano were more prone to respiratory problems, anxiety and worries, headaches, and poor sleep. Gisli Palsson, professor of anthropology at the University of Iceland, told GlacierHub that the latter three might also be related to concerns caused by radical changes in the children’s lives generated by the impact of the volcanic eruption.
The authors of the study further indicated to GlacierHub that a threatening, uncontrollable and unpredictable natural event so close to people´s homes is a major stressor. “The ash from the Eyjafjallajökull eruption damaged property, reduced visibility, delayed transportation, and many inhabitants had to evacuate their homes for a period of time. The continuous ashfall darkened the environment to the point of turning daylight into night, as well as glacier flooding, heavy lightning strikes, loud volcanic sound blasts and lava flows; all impacting the daily life of the exposed residents,” the authors note.
Although the eruption did not result in casualties, these events were stressful enough and caused uncertainty during and after the eruption. These stressors, in addition to the physical effects of ash exposure, may have contributed to the negative impacts on the children’s well-being, they added.
In addition, while the study did not compare gender regarding the continuity of symptoms, the results when analyzed by gender demonstrated that exposed male children had a higher likelihood of experiencing sleep disturbances and headaches than non-exposed male children.
Hlodversdottir and her co-authors indicated that it is important to note that all the measures of children’s health were based on the parents’ reporting. “It is well documented that internalized difficulties such as anxiety symptoms are more prevalent among girls and that boys show more often externalized difficulties,” they said. “It is therefore possible that boys in our study did not express their emotions verbally as much as girls but rather expressed their emotions as physical symptoms, i.e. headaches and sleeping difficulties. It is also possible that the children´s parents interpreted their children´s symptoms and behavior differently instead of the volcano eruption having different effects on gender.”
The results from the evaluation made in 2013 suggested that certain health problems— for example, depression and sleeping disturbances— were still present years after the event. The prevalence of these issues was linked to the gravity of the hazard that children had experienced.
Moreover, the researchers investigated the predictive factors that could cause these symptoms. In this aspect, they found that children who had experienced material damages were at higher risk of mental issues such as anxiety and depression when compared to those who were not exposed to these situations.
The authors indicated to GlacierHub that disasters can generate mental damage to families. For this reason, disaster interventions should focus on assisting people impacted by climate events. There is limited research on the impacts and long-term health effects of volcanic eruptions on children’s health, as well as knowledge on disaster risk populations among youth.
The authors added that there are indications in the literature that the academic environment is a convenient area to inform youth regarding preparedness and possible risks. Furthermore, parents should be advised on how to discuss these issues with their children.
Over 500 million people are located near active volcanoes, and children are the most vulnerable to the impacts of volcanic hazards. For this reason, it is important that governments develop strategies to prevent and reduce possible health issues on vulnerable populations. In addition, there must be more of an effort to continuously assess the health of the most vulnerable populations following a natural hazard. As Hlodversdottir and her co-authors told GlacierHub, “Children are a particularly vulnerable group that needs developmentally appropriate treatments that are evidence-based and affordable. It is therefore of great importance that such service be funded and made available in the long term after natural disasters.”