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Volcanic ash is having little impact on Europe's air quality

The European Environment Agency (EEA) is closely following the impacts of recent volcanic eruptions in Iceland, in particular assessing changes in ground-level air pollution. According to preliminary monitoring data, ground-level air quality across Europe has not deteriorated significantly as a result of the volcanic activity.

Volcanic eruptions have the potential to inject substantial amounts of sulphur dioxide and ash into the atmosphere. Volcanic aerosol, a suspension of fine solid particles or liquid droplets in the air, is created during eruptions and can be transported thousands of kilometres. Particles in the volcanic aerosol may carry pollutants with the potential to harm human health and ecosystems.

So far, monitoring stations in Europe have only detected a few episodes of ambient air concentrations of particulate matter and sulphur dioxide of volcanic origin, in particular at elevated mountainous locations, for example at Zugspitze in Germany (2659 m). The threat to public health in the European Union is therefore considered minimal at present.

On Iceland, however, the situation is different: concentrations of particulate matter are markedly higher than usual in some areas. That potentially represents a significant threat to humans and farm animals, according to the Icelandic Directorate of Health, which closely monitors pollution levels.

In Europe, rain and snowfall are expected to remove volcanic debris from the atmosphere. Detecting this process requires the chemical content of precipitation to be analysed, which takes time. Should these data indicate high pollutant levels, the current assessment of risk for human health and ecosystems may need to be reassessed.

The EEA maintains a public air quality information system, AirWatch, within its 'Eye on Earth' portal. It displays near real-time measurements of concentrations of three air pollutants (ground-level ozone, particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide) from approximately 1 000 monitoring stations in 32 countries, as well as updates from citizens.

Because ambient air concentrations and fallout can vary across short ranges within Europe, the EEA also advises the public to refer to national or local air quality authorities, which may have additional or new information on local conditions. Detailed information on national and local data providers is also available via Eye on Earth.

Links for further information

World Health Organization

Iceland Directorate of Health

AirWatch — Eye on Earth

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Denmark
Phone: +45 3336 7100