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March 18, 2009
By Claudene Wharton
A University of Nevada, Reno professor and researcher will be featured in an episode of a new television series, “Against the Elements,” on Discovery’s Science Channel at 8 p.m., March 25.
Bernadette Longo, assistant professor at the University’s Orvis School of Nursing, discusses the risks that volcanic eruptions pose to human health. Longo sheds some light on what the situation was like when the Masaya Volcano erupted in Nicaragua in April 2001, catching a group of about 150 tourists by surprise and putting them in danger.
Longo and colleague Wei Yang, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, are some of the few researchers who study human health effects from volcanic eruptions. Longo first got interested in studying the health effects of volcanic eruptions when she travelled to volcanic areas in Central and South America with her husband, Anthony Longo, who is a geosciences researcher at UNLV.
The Longos have been visiting Hawaii’s Kilauea, which means “spewing” or “much spreading,” since 1985. The current eruption of Kilauea began Jan. 3, 1983. Kilauea is among the world’s most active volcanoes, according to the U.S. Geological Society.
In a three-year study using medical records from communities near Hawaii’s Kilauea, UNR’s Longo and Yang confirmed that those living near active volcanoes that are passively emitting sulfurous air pollution are at greater risk of developing acute bronchitis. Children under age 15 carried the highest burden of disease in the exposed communities.
“The situation has worsened,” reported Longo. “During our first study of illnesses that occurred from 2004 to 2006, there was just one vent emitting air pollution, located on the volcano’s east rift. However, in March 2008, a new vent opened up at the summit, doubling emissions. It was already emitting over 1,000 tons each day — 100 times the amount deemed to be a major pollutant source by the Environmental Protection Agency,” said Longo.
Kilauea and Masaya are two of about 600 active volcanoes across the globe presenting health hazards to about 600 million people. Longo and Yang are continuing their study at Kilauea investigating the associated health effects of its “vog,” as locals call the fog-like volcanic haze.
“By having this information, clinicians can be aware of the risk, screen their patients, and provide earlier care if there is disease present. Ultimately, we want to see our research result in a better understanding of the health impact and public health interventions developed for these vulnerable populations.”
Longo said she is pleased that programs such as “Against the Elements” are raising awareness of the dangers and health hazards that volcanoes pose. “Against the Elements” debuted on Feb. 18 and features the power of Mother Nature’s four elements – earth, wind, fire and water – caught on tape and then analyzed to reveal the science behind the events. The March 25 episode on the Masaya Volcano eruption featuring Longo will air several more times throughout the week. In Reno, tune in to Discovery’s Science Channel on Charter Communications Channel 109 and Dish Network’s Channel 193.