Q: How does turning up the heat keep sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution out? Are people concerned about long-term effects?
In response to high pollution levels, the Directorate of Health and the Environment Agency of Iceland recommend turning up the heat to prevent SO2 from being carried inside.
Our understanding is that this would have the opposite effect, that turning up the heat would draw in the polluted air.
Is heating in Iceland exclusively by means of geothermal energy and would that explain this advice?
How is the general public handling the situation? Are people concerned about long-term effects?
We hope that the eruption will soon come to an end so that air quality can be restored.
Claudia Simon, Martin Röche
Rosenheim, Bavaria, Germany
A: I called the Directorate of Health and was informed that by turning up the heat, over-pressure is created, which blocks the gas.
The majority of homes in Iceland are heated by geothermal energy but that is irrelevant.
At first, people didn’t know how to respond to the eruption pollution. It seemed to have caught authorities off guard and information was insufficient and confusing.
Inhabitants in East Iceland were the first to experience high SO2 levels and could see and feel the effects, especially farmers who were rounding up their sheep in the highlands.
Head of Fjarðabyggð municipality Jón Björn Hákonarson told visir.is earlier this month that inhabitants have complained about stinging and headaches and that they are concerned about the long-term effects.
In Höfn, Southeast Iceland, inhabitants took measures to keep the gas out of their homes yesterday, such as by hanging towels soaked in a mixture of water and baking soda.
Local physician Elín Freyja Hauksdóttir told ruv.is that people consider the situation to be a natural disaster and are staying calm and following instructions.
Some of her patients, mostly people with asthma, complained about stinging in the throat, nose and eyes, bad taste in the mouth and even reported symptoms in the trachea.
Iceland’s Chief Epidemiologist Haraldur Briem stated that continued exposure to SO2 has no long-term effect on human health, referencing a study of SO2 pollution carried out among inhabitants in Japan where an eruption has lasted seven years.
However, this is disputed. Volcanology professor Þorvaldur Þórðarson told mbl.is last weekend that he is concerned about sulfuric acid particles created when sulfur dioxide contacts with water vapor.
“The haze from Skaftáreldar wasn’t sulfur dioxide but sulfuric acid particles. Extreme haze persisted over Iceland at that time and then drifted to Europe and also wreaked havoc there,” Þorvaldur said of the consequences of the massive 1783 volcanic eruption in Laki.
Following the eruption, in a period called Móðuharðindin, volcanic gases killed the grass and haze blocked out the sunlight, causing the death of livestock and widespread famine, resulting in one out of five Icelanders, or 10,000 people, dying. Crops failed in Europe and beyond.
The Laki eruption is one of the biggest to have occurred in the world in historic times and the deadliest. The Holuhraun eruption comes nowhere near it in scale.