The iron-catalysed surface reactivity and health-pertinent physical characteristics of explosive volcanic ash from Mt. Etna, Italy

Claire Horwell, Paul Sargent, Daniele Andronico, M. D. Lo Castro, M. Tomatis, Sarah E. Hillman, Sabina A. K. Michnowicz, Bice Fubini

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Mount Etna is Europe’s largest and most active volcano. In recent years, it has displayed enhanced explosive activity, causing concern amongst local inhabitants who frequently have to live with, and clean up, substantial ashfall. Basaltic volcanic ash is generally considered unlikely to be a respiratory health hazard due to its often coarse nature (with few particles sub-10 μm diameter) and lack of crystalline silica. However, a previous study by the authors showed the capability of basaltic ash to generate the hydroxyl radical, a highly-reactive species which may cause cell damage. That study investigated a single sample of Etna ash, amongst others, with data giving an early indication that the Etnean ash may be uniquely reactive. In this study, we analyse a suite of Etnean samples from recent and historical eruptions. Deposits indicate that Etna’s past history was much more explosive than current activity, with frequent sub-plinian to plinian events. Given the recent increase in explosivity of Etna, the potential hazard of similarly, or more-explosive, eruptions should be assessed. A suite of physicochemical analyses were conducted which showed recent ash, from 2001 and 2002 explosive phases, to be of similar composition to the historical deposits (trachy-basaltic) but rather coarser (< 2.4 c.v.% sub-10 μm material and <11.5 c.v.% sub-10 μm material, respectively), but the potential for post-depositional fragmentation by wind and vehicles should not be ignored. One recent sample contained a moderate number of fibre-like particles, but all other samples were typical of fine-grained ash (blocky, angular with electrostatic or chemical aggregation of finer particles on larger ones). The surface reactivity analyses (Fenton chemistry, on samples from recent eruptions only) showed that Etnean ash is more reactive in hydroxyl radical generation than other basaltic ash, and samples of intermediate composition. This high reactivity suggests that Etnean ash could promote oxidative stress in exposed cells. Therefore, further investigation of the potential toxicity, through cellular tests, is now warranted in order to provide a comprehensive health hazard assessment.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Applied Volcanology
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - 17 Aug 2017


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