Feature: Air pollution doesn’t respect borders

John Lumb, Director at Evotech Air Quality explores the air pollution impact of volcanic eruptions and explains why air pollution does not respect borders. 

Toxic pollution travels from country to country, carried by air and water with no respect for borders. This means that even places with relatively clean air can be subjected to air pollution events.

As an example of this, Tenerife being a small island usually enjoys a welcoming sea breeze and relatively low air pollution, however, being close to Africa the island can sometimes be subjected to dust storms or simooms from the Sahara.

During the October school half term, I took my family on holiday for the first time in more than two years to relax and enjoy some sunshine in Tenerife. This was unlucky timing though because the air quality was extremely poor for most of the week.

The cause of the adverse air conditions on this occasion was the ongoing volcanic eruptions from Cumbre Vieja in Tenerife’s neighbouring island of La Palma, which is being widely reported by the World’s press. At the time of writing, the Cumbre Vieja eruption has been active for nine weeks, after initially erupting on the 19th of September.

The impact of the volcanic ash carried by the wind created unfavourable flying conditions which added an hour to our journey there and back, but we were grateful to be able to get away and didn’t let this affect our holiday.

I had of course been keeping a close eye on air quality in Tenerife since the first eruption, not just because of the threat to Las Palma’s residents and the impact on its environment, but also because I was in Tenerife in May 2011 when the Icelandic Grímsvötn volcano erupted closing down airspace throughout Northern Europe and I was concerned that the Cumbre Vieja eruption may have a similar consequence on air travel.

But what I didn’t expect, was that a change in wind direction and a fresh eruption would severely impact air quality in Tenerife. Myself and my family all felt quite poorly with symptoms including headaches, sore throats and dry eyes. This image shows the haze in a clear (no clouds) night sky!


Dr Gabriela Adler Katz, Chief Scientist at BreezoMeter explains in a recent blog: ‘When lava erupts and flows into the drastically colder ocean seawater, it creates a chemical reaction producing an explosion of steam, sending bright white toxic plumes into the air.

‘These white plumes are known as Laze, or ‘lava haze’, and they contain a mixture of condensed seawater steam, hydrochloric acid gas, and tiny shards of volcanic glass. These extremely acidic plumes can be blown downwind, and as such, their toxic effects can reach far beyond their originating points.’

I also recorded the air quality using my iPhone weather app, which uses BreezoMeter air quality data, which showed the air as being hazardous. All very concerning, however, this knowledge enabled us to make choices to spend more time indoors on the worst days. The third image clearly shows how the airflow was affecting other islands and that Tenerife clearly had the best air quality – just not in the South of the island.

We were unlucky to be staying on the wrong side of the island, proving that air pollution doesn’t respect borders as it moves long distances on the wind.

Obviously, we were unable to monitor the indoor air quality but it was clearly much better than outdoors, however, it would have been comforting to have monitors in our rooms. Whilst I’ve concentrated on volcanic eruption in my blog today, this information also applies to dust storms and extreme weather events like wildfires, the airborne toxic pollution of which can pollute the air in many countries and not just the country of origin.

In a quest to best support businesses to put in place measures to help minimise the risk of Covid-19 transmission and reduce air pollution risks, Evotech Air Quality has recently launched an indoor air quality starter kit. This bundle of Airthings award-winning, indoor air quality sensors and support services is the perfect size for smaller premises and, as it’s a fully scalable solution, any number of wireless devices can be added at any time.

Because indoor air quality matters and air pollution doesn’t respect borders!


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2 years ago

Thank you – fascinating but nasty at the same time. I hopeyou all recovered quickly. If that smoke could travel, it all can.

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