The sieving technique developed by Dr Claire Horwell analyses the grain size of volcanic ash to determine its possible threat to many thousands of humans affected by the estimated 70 volcanic eruptions which happen worldwide each year.
Volcanic ash is thought to trigger attacks of acute respiratory diseases, such as asthma and bronchitis, in people who already have the diseases. It also has the potential to cause chronic diseases such as the lung disease silicosis.
Medical studies to assess the risk from the ash following an eruption can take years, but if ash is too large to enter the lung, it cannot be a hazard.
In many countries, only basic sieves are available for assessing the grain size of volcanic ash, but until now sieving could not determine if particles were fine enough to enter the lung.
To solve this problem, Dr Horwell used state-of-the-art laser technology to analyse the grain size of samples from around the world. She found there was a strong link between the ratios of different-sized particles present. She then used this link to develop a formula so that the amount of breathable particles could be estimated by sieving.
Dr Horwell said this sieving technique could allow emergency response teams to quickly and cheaply measure the potential risk to health without the need for high-tech equipment.
Depending on the risk, measures could be put in place to protect people living close-by, she said. Her research appears in the Journal of Environmental Monitoring.