Volcano Watch — Community-based research team begins to examine vog's health effects

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"When you can't breathe, nothing else matters." The motto of the American Lung Association resonates for many of us who live on the island of Hawai'i, especially those located directly downwind of Kīlauea's eruptive vents.

In addition to being one of the most beautiful and consistently active volcanoes on the Earth, Kīlauea has out-polluted our nation's dirtiest fossil fuel power plants by releasing huge quantities of irritating sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas for the last 19 years. This noxious stature as a top polluter has recently helped foster the assembly of a team of wide-ranging researchers, including HVO staff members. This group will examine the effects of Kīlauea's pollution, known locally as vog, on air quality and human health. The group, led by Dr. Elizabeth Tam of The University of Hawai'i's Medical School, is federally funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and has already begun to involve Big Island agencies and individuals in learning more about, and conducting research related to vog.

As many island residents will agree, there are some good reasons for this research. Although vog is not as spectacular a hazard as lava flows or as devastating as earthquakes, it is distinct (pun acknowledged) because vog has affected the air quality of some portion of the island and sometimes the entire state, almost continuously over the past 16 years of eruptive activity. Many residents and visitors alike complain of breathing difficulties, headaches and flu-like symptoms when exposed to vog.

Kīlauea emits a steady stream of irritating SO2, about 1,500 tonnes per day, enough to fill 100 Goodyear blimps. Vog is formed when prevailing northeasterly tradewinds blow the volcanic emissions to the southwest, where wind patterns carry it around the southern tip of the island. Once there, the emissions—most of which have converted in the air to tiny particles and droplets of acid-rich aerosol—are carried up the leeward (Kona) coast and become trapped by daytime onshore and night time offshore sea breezes, resulting in visibly hazy conditions. During prolonged Kona (southerly) winds, Kīlauea's emissions stay, for the most part, in East Hawai'i, making it uncomfortable for people trying to breathe in Ka`u, Puna, Hilo, and sometimes up the Hamakua coast. When winds are very calm, the entire state can be affected.

On the new project, University of Hawai'i meteorology researchers will use historical data from the National Weather Service, USGS-HVO, National Park Service, and State Department of Health (DOH) to estimate how much vog residents on different parts of the island have been exposed to during the eruption. This information will help us choose specific sites for more intensive study.

Next, the group will look at the chemistry of the vog to identify what gases and particles are present and at what levels, at different island locations. This task will draw on the experience of team members from the Harvard School of Public Health, the University of Southern California, and the State DOH. The air quality information will be combined with a study of lung function in school children and with hospital emergency room visits to infer how vog influences respiratory health.

Until now, many people of the Big Island have acted instinctively to avoid suspected health risks posed by vog. For example, the Department of Education, in consultation with Hawai'i County Civil Defense, typically keeps sensitive students, such as asthmatics, indoors during "bad air" days, and outdoor athletic activities are sometimes cancelled. Similarly, the NPS and USGS have devised a real-time SO2 monitoring and advisory plan to help alert visitors and workers near Kīlauea caldera in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park.

Since the new vog project is expected to provide a better understanding of how volcanic emissions from Kīlauea affect health, it can help Big Island residents and officials make informed decisions about living in areas affected by vog. Lessons learned from the Hawai'i study can be applied to other communities in similar volcanic settings worldwide.

We at HVO are excited to be part of this multidisciplinary effort, which has brought together concerned community groups and residents, physical scientists, medical practitioners and researchers to address this common interest.

Volcano Activity Update

Eruptive activity of Kīlauea Volcano continued unabated at the Pu`u `O`o vent during the past week. Lavamoves away from the vent toward the ocean in a network of tubes and descends Pulama pali in several separate tubes. Field crews report surface flows above the pali from breakouts of the main tube system at the 2,290-ft and 2,220-ft elevations. A breakout from the Kamoamoa tube system midway down the pali supply a flow pooling at the base. Several surface flows near the Kamoamoa and Kupapa`u tube systems are seen in the coastal flats. Lava continues to enter the ocean at Kamoamoa and the area east of Kupapa`u.

The public is reminded that the benches of the ocean entries are very hazardous, with possible collapses of the unstable new land. The steam clouds are extremely hot, highly acidic, and laced with glass particles. Swimming at the black sand beaches of the benches can be a blistering or even deadly venture.

There were no earthquakes reported felt during the week ending on December 20.