HDOH advises West Hawaii residents build clean air rooms inside homes

  • Vog obliterates the view of Hualalai from NELHA in late May. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Aside from leaving the island, there’s no escaping the vog that has enveloped most of West Hawaii since the latest Kilauea volcano eruption began in early May.

But if you can stand the heat, there might be an option to reasonably mitigate it.

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At an informational meeting Wednesday night in the Konawaena Elementary School cafeteria, Hawaii Department of Health (HDOH) officials continued to push the best solution the state has for dealing with vog and the harmful particulate matter it contains — simply stay inside.

Dr. Al Bronstein, chief of the Emergency Medical Services and Injury Prevention System Branch with HDOH, admitted it’s hard to gauge indoor-outdoor air exchange without testing each individual home, adding that the outside air contamination is likely to prove significant even if dwellers seal up windows and doors as tightly as possible.

But it’s still worth doing, he explained, as the long-term health impacts of protracted vog exposure remain relatively unknown.

“I think you probably get some help,” Bronstein said. “But then you get into its going to get really hot, and so it’s a trade off. That’s the problem.”

Expounding upon their advice to stay inside, speakers also recommended Wednesday that homeowners construct clean air rooms.

HDOH official Eric Honda explained the process begins with sealing points of air exchange as effectively as possible. If you have an interior room absent windows, that’s the most ideal site.

The next step is to buy an air filter, but not all are created equally.

Each filter is built to address specific contaminants. In West Hawaii, the most harmful component of vog is particulate matter 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter, or PM2.5. Honda said use of a high efficiency particulate air filter, or a HEPA filter, is crucial to removing PM2.5 from interior air.

HDOH plans to create a “frequently asked question” section for its vog dashboard website running through air filter options. The section is currently being compiled.

Janina Balmores, of Captain Cook, said she’s implemented a version of Honda’s suggestion in her home already.

“We close up our house and we have the air cleaner going,” she said. “I live in a small, one-bedroom area. I think it’s making a difference because as soon as I open the door … I smell the difference between the inside and outside air on the bad days.”

Deidree Grace, also of Captain Cook, said her family does the same in their three-bedroom home, using HEPA filters in each bedroom. The results haven’t been noticeable yet to her, but she’s kept it up just the same.

“It must be helping somewhat rather than nothing at all,” Grace said. “I’m just kind of doing it for long-term effect, hoping all these particulates aren’t getting into my system and causing something long-term.”

Honda said using an air conditioner for comfort is fine if your home is equipped with one but advised turning off outside air intakes. Most air conditioning units aren’t built to filter air and are particularly ill-equipped at mitigating PM2.5.

He added the department’s official position remains that utilization of N95 respirators should be a last resort. The respirators need to be specially fitted to each individual’s face and actually restrict the normal breathing process, which can cause more harm than good to people with preexisting respiratory conditions.

James Ciszewski, supervisor of the Air Quality Monitoring Section in the State Laboratories Division of HDOH, said West Hawaii residents should soon have a better idea of air quality at specific sites, which should aid public health by educating citizens on when it’s particularly important to stay inside and use clean air rooms.

The state plans to install 10 more permanent air quality monitoring stations across the Big Island, most of which will be situated in West Hawaii.

“We’re starting to put out more equipment now,” Ciszewski said. “We’re hoping to get temporary equipment out at all these stations in the next month. The permanent stations are going to take a while longer, but we’ll get that done as soon as we can.”

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All monitoring station data will be available on the state’s various air quality websites. Better monitoring should provide some peace of mind to people like Grace, who has lived on the island her entire life and never worried about vog until six weeks ago.

“Now with so much in the air, and we can just physically see it, now it’s a concern,” she said.