Assessing health hazards of chronic, ambient exposures to volcanic gases on Montserrat, Eastern Caribbean


The Soufrière Hills volcano has not erupted ash since 2011 but is still emitting roughly 350 tonnes/day of sulphur dioxide gas (SO2) with recent spikes up to 1000 tonnes/day. Depending on atmospheric conditions, local communities are sometimes exposed to SO2 and other volcanic gases and aerosol particulates. SO2 is an important air pollutant and can cause health problems even in low concentrations far from the volcanic vent. The levels of air pollution (volcanic and anthropogenic) in populated areas on Montserrat is currently unknown. The student engaged on this project will review current knowledge on the health impacts of exposure to volcanic gases and aerosol, set up and maintain a monitoring network of ambient sensors on Montserrat, collect and analyse the data, and assess personal exposure for outdoor workers and at-risk residents. From this and with ancillary data (e.g. medical, social) the student will produce a risk assessment for air pollution exposure on Montserrat and routes for mitigating the risk.


The student will be based in Durham with visits to Montserrat. In Durham, the student’s first supervisor is Prof Claire Horwell, director of the International Volcanic Health Hazard Network, who has worked extensively in volcanic settings around the world, including Montserrat. The student will also be supervised by Dr Christine Braban (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) and Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya (University of Leeds) both of whom have extensive experience in monitoring air pollution and volcanic gases and fieldwork on active volcanoes. In Montserrat, the student will work with the Governor of Montserrat’s policy advisor, Alan Morrison. The student will start the project in Durham, reviewing the literature, planning fieldwork and receiving training in use and maintenance of the air quality sensors. With the support of the supervisory team, the student will then deploy a network of sensors on Montserrat, maintain the network, conduct personal exposure measurements, and analyse the data. The student may also collect particulate samples and analyse them in the laboratory in Durham for source apportionment (determining the proportions of different types of particulate matter such as volcanic ash, diesel particles, pollen etc.).The student will either take frequent trips to Montserrat or be based there for at least a year, depending on personal circumstances and funding. The student will have a strong background in statistics and chemistry, in order to be able to analyse and interpret the data. Computer modelling (again, experience desirable) will be used to conduct a risk assessment.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Months 1-6 Literature review, fieldwork planning, instrument training
Months 6-12 Deployment of instrumentation on Montserrat, instrument maintenance, exposure measurements, data analysis

Year 2

Months 13-24 Montserrat instrument maintenance, exposure measurements, geochemical and data analysis

Year 3

Months 25-36 Montserrat instrument maintenance, data analysis and risk assessment, write up and publication of data

Year 3.5

Month 37+ Continued thesis write up and submission

& Skills

The student will receive training, in the UK, on use and maintenance of a range of reference grade and low-cost instruments for measuring gases and particulate matter. The student will receive training in data processing, quality assurance and analysis methodologies. Training will also include geochemical analytical techniques and public communication of science. The IAPETUS DTP will also provide a range of training opportunities.

References & further reading

Whitty, R.C.W., Ilyinskaya, E., et al. 2020. Spatial and Temporal Variations in SO2 and PM2.5 Levels Around Kīlauea Volcano, Hawai’i During 2007–2018. Frontiers in Earth Science, 8(36).
Moore, K.R., Duffell, H., Nicholl, A. and Searl, A., 2002. Monitoring of airborne particulate matter during the eruption of Soufrière Hills Volcano, Montserrat. In: T.H. Druitt and B.P. Kokelaar (Editors), The eruption of Soufrière Hills Volcano, Montserrat, from 1995 to 1999. Geological Society, London, Memoir.
Hansell, A.L., Horwell, C.J. and Oppenheimer, C., 2006. The health hazards of volcanoes and geothermal areas. Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 63: 149-156.
Hansell, A.L., & Oppenheimer, C., 2004. Health Hazards from Volcanic Gases: A Systematic Literature Review. Archives of Environmental Health: An International Journal, 59:12, 628-639,

Further Information

Please contact Prof Claire Horwell for any further information about the project or to access references which may be behind a paywall.

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