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Volcanic ash blankets the New Britain town

By Elizabeth Vuvu

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (The National, Sept. 18, 2008) - There is no immediate health risk posed to people in Rabaul town and nearby East New Britain villages due to the continuous ash and gas emissions from Mt Tavurvur, an environmental health scientist said.

However, Dr. Peter Baxter from the Cambridge University in England, warned that people with chronic lung problems could face serious health complications if they continued to inhale volcanic dust and ash.

Volcanic experts have also raised concern that ash from Mt Tavurvur could develop into a mudslide in the wet season.

Reports from the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory said the activity had increased in the area over the past three months.

Baxter was engaged by the World Health Organisation to carry out studies on the impact from the volcano and determine whether there were immediate health risks to the population of Rabaul.

He said it was obvious that people with lung diseases would have a high risk level to their health if they continued to inhale polluted air from the volcano.

For healthy people, there could be long-term health problems as long as they lived in the volcanic zone, he added.

Baxter is expected to present his final report on his environmental impact studies to the WHO, Health Department and the East New Britain provincial disaster committee before the end of the year. He arrived at the province last April and made a study on the quality of drinking water and the type of ash emitting from the volcano.

Baxter also studied whether there was gas in the air coming from the volcano. Results were finalized a few weeks ago and a preliminary report was presented to the WHO.

Baxter will make a brief visit to ENB to update conditions he had observed three months ago when the winds changed direction and the pollution from the volcano was not too bad.

But, he said, the pollution had now worsened, necessitating more tests to ascertain what risks the people would face. He recommended chest X-ray and other medical tests for the population.

Baxter said health of children who had been raised in the Rabaul area since 1994 would be of special concern.

Meanwhile, Ima Itikarai at the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory said the ash they had seen now was probably second only to the main eruption in 1994 that devastated two-thirds of the Rabaul town and surrounding villages which were blanketed by ash up to 40cm.

Dry season winds had whisked the debris away, causing respiratory problems for the people in the area, he said, adding light rains, mixed with debris on roof tops, had already caused the collapse of weaker houses.

As ash has accumulated on slopes surrounding the township, it is expected that heavier rains next month would cause mud slides capable of wider destruction.

Mr. Itikarai said ash continued to fall and he was not sure if and when it would stop.

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