Kona clamors for answers on air quality

  • This photo compilation shows Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay from the scenic lookout on Kamehameha III Road amid heavy vog on May 29 (top) and on Wednesday amid better air quality. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Tina Neal, HVO Scientist-in-Charge speaks about the ongoing eruptions at an air quality community meeting Wednesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Community members overflow council chambers for an air quality meeting Wednesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Community members overflow council chambers for an air quality meeting Wednesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Dr. Bruce Anderson, Head of the State Department of Health, speaks to community members at an air quality meeting Wednesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Community members overflow council chambers for an air quality meeting Wednesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • John Peard of the Department of Health in Hilo speaks at a community meeting on air quality Wednesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Abel Lui interjects his opinion at an air quality meeting Wednesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Al Bronstein, State EMS and Injury Prevention Branch Chief speaks at a community meeting on air quality Wednesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • Rep. Nicole Lowen expresses constituent concerns at an air quality community meeting Wednesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)
  • A community member expresses concern over the air quality monitoring system at a community meeting Wednesday at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — Confusion, apprehension and frustration, along with a greater-than-capacity crowd, spilled out the open doors of the West Hawaii Civic Center’s County Council Chambers Wednesday night at a meeting to discuss deteriorating air quality in the region.

Restless citizens lined the walls, sat cross-legged on the floor in front of regular seating and strained to listen in from several feet outside the chambers as presenters from the medical field, the Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) and the United States Geological Service (USGS) offered information about vog and fielded questions regarding its impact and mitigation.


One moment early on in the evening — when Lisa Young, environmental health specialist with the DOH’s Clean Air Branch, tried to explain the Hawaii County color-coding system for air quality alerts — captured the jumbled efforts of state and county officials to respond to air quality inquiries in West Hawaii as they attempt to manage the treacherous eruption of Kilauea in Puna.

“My understanding is the blue dot means it’s either green or yellow,” Young said.

Her comment, referencing a murky communication system in which green and yellow traditionally correlate with good to moderate air quality, was met with exasperated laughter that rippled through an impatient audience.

“I’m a little frustrated with the new color chart, it doesn’t work out,” said Julie Klaz, a 10-year Kona resident. “People are canceling their trips because they can’t read the new meters. … The average person, they want to see a color they know.”

In fairness to Young, blame for the confusing, conflicting systems of notification for West Hawaii can hardly be placed solely on the Clean Air Branch or DOH.

Dr. Bruce Anderson, DOH director, acknowledged the inherent confusion and explained Hawaii County officials preferred to use color coding with which they were familiar. He added that in future updates on state-operated websites, DOH would use colors corresponding to those implemented nationally by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It’s been up to West Hawaii citizens and prospective tourists to seek out and decipher information themselves, as Hawaii County Civil Defense has not sent out email and text alerts corresponding to poor air quality days in Kona.

Civil Defense was not represented at the meeting Wednesday and has not answered multiple inquiries from West Hawaii Today as to why such communications aren’t being circulated, instead referring reporters to Clean Air Branch employees like Young whose primary jobs are monitoring, not dissemination of information.

How bad is it really?

Breakdowns in communication over the past month were mirrored at Wednesday’s meeting, as presenters were routinely interrupted, including once by the bellowing echo of a conch shell, in attempt to redirect their focus to the immediate and long-term health risks of vog exposure.

Klaz noted that in her decade living in West Hawaii, she’s never felt the impact of vog like this before. Now she feels it in her throat, her chest, her eyes. Sometimes, it manifests as a panic.

While some questions were answered, not all in attendance left satisfied with the information panelists provided.

“I wasn’t so pleased with tonight,” said Lor Christiansen, who relocated to Kealakekua only five months ago and is already contemplating his exit. “I feel they need to narrow their focus down to the health of the people here, not so much the measurements and the data. What can we do to prevent issues with our respiratory systems, our eyes, our ears, our skin breaking out?”

Dr. Elizabeth Tam, Professor and Chair of Medicine at the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s John A. Burns School of Medicine, put some minds at ease.

She was part of a 10-year study that examined protracted exposure to vog, and said results showed it did not cause asthma nor did it stunt lung growth in children. It did exacerbate asthmatic conditions in the form of coughing, however, and she added it’s important to limit exposure to infants, but their faces shouldn’t be covered with masks.

In comparison to traditional air pollution found in China and India, Tam said vog has proven considerably less harmful. There are potential links between vog and cardiovascular issues like hypertension, she explained, but the science in that area isn’t developed enough to draw conclusions with certainty.

John Peard, of the DOH’s Hilo Field Office, said those suffering should turn to respirators only as a last resort. Tam added that air filters can have a relatively positive impact and an affordable brand can be found at Costco. Other than that, limiting outdoor exertion and exposure is key for everyone in West Hawaii on heavy vog days.

Beyond physical effects, Anderson said the DOH will be looking into mental and emotional health impacts on people suffering in all sorts of ways, from the tragedy of losing a home to lava to the stresses of poor air quality.

Measuring up

One color that carried with it no ambiguity Wednesday was red. In air quality terms, red means unhealthy. Kailua-Kona, the site of the only permanent DOH air quality monitor on the West Hawaii coast, registered two red days last week.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a red in Kona before,” Young said.

While sulfur dioxide, SO2, is a primary component of volcanic emissions, it rarely reaches West Hawaii intact. Instead, it breaks down into sulfate particulates, which Peard explained are the most concerning for residents here.

Particulate matter measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter can get deep into the lungs and mix into the bloodstream, Tam said. On red days, the safest play is to stay inside.

Still, Anderson assured the audience that based on measurements, there is no call for panic.

“We’re not seeing levels anywhere in West Hawaii that suggest you should run out and get masks or respirators. The levels are typically well below what we expect to cause any adverse impact,” said Anderson, adding the caveat that those with pre-existing respiratory conditions may not be exempt from worsening health due to vog.

Members of the crowd remained unconvinced.

DOH data is based on its on permanent site in Kailua-Kona and two temporary sites, one at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority (NELHA) and another in Waikoloa. Some in the audience questioned if limited surveillance at those sites was enough to speak so decisively about air quality across the entirety of West Hawaii.

DOH is targeting several sites in the region for permanent monitoring stations with an optimistic timeline of two months for installation of at least a few to begin.

Young said one will be either at Kealakehe High School or Middle School, one will replace the temporary site at NELHA, two will go in Waikoloa (one on the coast and the other in Waikoloa Village), while another two will be placed at sites in Hookena and Naalehu, respectively.

Anderson said he’d welcome public input on site location, which can be provided by contacting the district health office.

Peard added that Massachusetts Institute of Technology will use a three-year grant to place 30 more temporary monitoring stations across the island. The grant is part of a pilot project on less expensive stations, however, so the equipment will not be as advanced as temporary stations donated by the EPA or permanent stations constructed by DOH.

Parting thoughts

While the crowd was often critical at Wednesday’s forum, some in attendance walked away satisfied with presenters’ efforts.

“I feel I have more information regarding what to do in specific situations,” said Nicole Therlof, who has been visiting Hawaii Island regularly since 1994 and recently moved to Kona. “And the situation, contrary to what some people may think, is not as dire as it may appear.”

Kraz, who raised several questions about official response and performance, was thankful, too.

“I’m just so happy everybody came out to address Kona because we have kind of gotten shoved under the bus,” said Klaz, adding the caveat that air quality concerns pale in comparison to losing one’s home. “Other than right next to (the vents), air quality has consistently been worse in (West Hawaii) than anywhere else.”

  1. Buds4All June 7, 2018 4:11 am

    People there is a Volcano going off….we all know the air is going to be bad! Are you that stupid? Limit your outside activities. Take the common sense measures to protect yourselves, family members and your pets as well! The people on the other side of the Island have it far worse they have lost everything!

    1. KonaDude June 7, 2018 7:44 am

      These days we need the government to help us make decisions, I wish they would tell me what to have for lunch!!

      1. Buds4All June 7, 2018 8:15 am

        I can help go to Don’s and Drink your lunch!

      2. Chickie Galore June 7, 2018 10:38 am

        better yet, how many sheets of paper i should use when i go to the lua.

        1. Du Mhan Yhu June 7, 2018 8:21 pm

          As many as you want Chickie!

    2. ypupule June 7, 2018 8:20 am

      I wouldn’t want to be so harsh (re: “stupid”)… but yeah.

      1. Buds4All June 7, 2018 8:42 am

        The meeting was stupid compared to what the people of Puna are going thru!

  2. Pest Outwest June 7, 2018 5:15 am

    Yeah, I noticed the “blue dot” thing myself. Apparently that either means great or bad. Pretty ridiculous.

    1. Raoul Duke II June 7, 2018 4:30 pm

      I believe your posts to be offensive and in the great liberal tradition of shithead overdose!

      1. Pest Outwest June 7, 2018 4:46 pm

        I’m flattered.

        1. Raoul Duke II June 7, 2018 5:10 pm

          I believe we agree on most things, but sometimes your comments border on the absurd and incoherent drivel

      2. briala June 7, 2018 4:52 pm

        I rate your post to be quality level “blue.”

  3. guest June 7, 2018 7:44 am

    I don’t need color dots to know if the air quality is bad, its obvious and I adjust my activity accordingly to minimize effects. STOP expecting government to be responsible for everything in YOUR life! Have you not noticed that government is incapable of doing anything well on this island? Well, except raise and collect taxes. Why would this be different? This is a natural occurrence, not man made, on and Island where volcanic activity is the norm not unexpected, no surprises here! There are really two choices, move elsewhere or stay here and take the personal responsibly necessary to live with it.

    1. Buds4All June 7, 2018 8:14 am

      They are going to ask us for tax money next week to pay for a Environmental Air Study!

      1. Chickie Galore June 7, 2018 10:38 am

        Nailed it!

        1. Funkenstein✓Funkᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ™ June 7, 2018 11:20 am

          your trolling game isn’t working

      2. Funkenstein✓Funkᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ™ June 7, 2018 11:20 am

        oh, RWNJ propaganda trolling

        1. Buds4All June 7, 2018 4:40 pm

          Hilo CornHole is that you?

          1. Du Mhan Yhu June 8, 2018 4:13 am

            Oh no. Not that brilliant Hilo Jack here.

            Just me in my new redeemed self.

            Now that I have renounced my republican affiliation and am no longer a Christian my life is free to think with intellect!

            Gosh I was such a stupid idiot before Hilo Jack came along and showed me the error of my prior former self.

          2. Buds4All June 8, 2018 5:01 am

            Her prefers to go by CornHole Jack

          3. Du Mhan Yhu June 8, 2018 5:09 am

            Whatever you want to call him he is the most brilliant individual around.

          4. Buds4All June 8, 2018 5:17 am

            Just ask him he will tell you!

          5. Du Mhan Yhu June 8, 2018 5:52 am

            Oh no I learned that he is brilliant.

            It’s been me that was the stupid fool all those years.

          6. Du Mhan Yhu June 8, 2018 8:05 am

            Indeed it is. Click on the stolen avatar and you will see @hilojack on the Disqus page.

          7. Du Mhan Yhu June 8, 2018 8:37 am

            Not at all

            It’s the new me. The same but repented

            I no longer am a republican or a Christian.

            I think Trump and the entire Republican Party and all of their supporters should be in jail

            I am sorry to have mislead all of you. I was a sorry excuse of a human

            Please forgive me but I have repented.

      3. Raoul Duke II June 7, 2018 4:32 pm

        yes…”you sir are CORRECT”…they have already approved the 1/4 cent GET tax increase and it’s only a matter of time before they raise property taxes again…the great nanny state of Hawaii and our fearless leaders in the county government only believe in soaking the poor working stiffs here and giving HUGE raises to government bureaucrats who add NO VALUE to our lives…they only take take take

      4. Du Mhan Yhu June 7, 2018 4:43 pm

        And we should PAY IT!

        I rescind my republican party affiliation, and my christian religion.

        I am now a liberal.

        EVERYTHING Trump is is illegal.

        Hillary would have been the best POTUS ever!

        1. Buds4All June 7, 2018 4:50 pm

          Hahahahahaha not buying it. There is no way you would pick sides with CornHole Jack from Hilo

          1. Du Mhan Yhu June 7, 2018 4:55 pm

            Oh but I did!

            I find him to be actually quite smart!

            And his viewpoint on Trump is 100% correct!

            I was wrong. A fool. I got hooked, like you did, on Trump’s poison kool-aid.

            I finally woke up!

            Now I see how stupid I have been. How so stupid I was.

            And also, how totally smart that Hilo Jack really is.

            I am telling you – I renounce my republican affiliation and I am no longer believing in ANY God whatsoever.

            God I was such a fool.

          2. Buds4All June 7, 2018 5:06 pm

            Awesome…..Spooning with CornHole Jack! Off to Sam Choy’s for happy hour!

          3. Du Mhan Yhu June 7, 2018 5:09 pm

            Please don’t drive drunk! Like I used to when I was a republican and christian.

            Now, being the atheist liberal I am, I enjoy ALL life.

            That is, once its born.

          4. Buds4All June 8, 2018 5:00 am

            I was cool…came home after my ribs and then ubered out……the only way to fly! Thanks for the concern brother!

          5. Du Mhan Yhu June 8, 2018 5:13 am

            That’s good!

            I know in my prior republican Christian ways I drive drunk all the time. I may have even killed a few while driving home drunk.

            Now that I have seen the error in my ways I no longer drive drunk as I value human life.

            Again. Only after it’s born!

          6. Du Mhan Yhu June 7, 2018 5:30 pm

            This is an impersonator, of course. A first to have a stalker try to pretend to be me. Very creepy. SSAD is a nasty affliction.

          7. Du Mhan Yhu June 7, 2018 8:21 pm

            We both hide behind a keyboard.

            When you come to think of it.

            Logically, truthfully and in reality

          8. Du Mhan Yhu June 8, 2018 6:55 am

            Your buddy Tater taught me how to be just like you!

          9. Du Mhan Yhu June 7, 2018 8:20 pm

            Sorry, I relapsed again

        2. Chickie Galore June 7, 2018 7:06 pm

          I tink u lie small kind. 😉

          1. Du Mhan Yhu June 7, 2018 7:17 pm

            Oh NO!~

            I am a new man – now that I have freed my brain of the republican party, christianity and Trump~

            I am so happy. But I admit, i was a stupid blind fool!

    2. ypupule June 7, 2018 8:23 am

      Taking responsibility for your own choices in life — e.g., choosing to live on an active volcanic island — is often the hardest thing. It sucks having no one else to blame when things go bad. But it still beats living in denial.

  4. HiloWahine June 7, 2018 8:26 am

    Take it up with Pele. She is in charge.

  5. oceanwatcher.com June 7, 2018 9:16 am

    We have been living with vog in Kona since the eruption began in 1981 – that’s 37 years of vog and we have no tracking by the state health department as to long term effects on health. Now, it is at dangerous levels and telling people to “stay indoors” just really doesn’t cut it. What about construction workers and people who work outside all day? They should stop working? People have lives to live, and many of our homes are built for outdoor living as much as they are indoor living and aren’t designed to close off to the outside world. One ten year study done decades ago on school children is not enough – children, first of all, are much more resilient than adults or older people and there was never any follow up with these children as they have grown up to assess any impacts or residual effects after this initial study. To have this Dr. from UH suggest that our air isn’t any worse than some of the worst polluted large cities in Asia is just outrageous – as if that makes it acceptable! If this volcanic activity continues, at these levels, Kona literally could be uninhabitable, especially if we lose our tourism base because the air quality is so nasty, nobody wants to be here – and don’t expect for any solutions from the state or county, except, apparently a tax increase, but then we knew that was coming. Heartfelt wishes to everyone in Puna – your loss in unimaginable.

    1. mikehira June 7, 2018 9:56 am

      If the vog in Kona is PM2.5 instead of SO2 shouldn’t N95 masks help? Why doesn’t the Hawaii DOH recommend N95 masks for people in Kona who have to work outside?

    2. Chickie Galore June 7, 2018 10:39 am

      I recommend you move.

      1. oceanwatcher.com June 7, 2018 10:53 am

        If you don’t have something helpful to add, perhaps you should keep quiet.

        1. oceanwatcher.com June 7, 2018 11:22 am

          Spoken like the true swamp dweller you obviously are………..

    3. Chickie Galore June 7, 2018 10:41 am

      Oh, wait, you want the government to relocate you…right? Stop taking my money because you live somewhere you did not research and now you want a do over.

      1. oceanwatcher.com June 7, 2018 10:55 am

        You are an idiot – get a life! My comments are all valid – yours are not.

        1. Chickie Galore June 7, 2018 11:15 am

          Just like a liberal. You know best!

          1. Funkenstein✓Funkᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ™ June 7, 2018 11:20 am

            You are RWNJ troll.

      2. Funkenstein✓Funkᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ™ June 7, 2018 11:19 am

        you are a RWNJ troll

      3. Buds4All June 8, 2018 4:58 am

        When we bought our house one of the things we looked at were the USGS lava flow charts…kind of a no brainier. But for Funkensteinberg that was too much of a stretch.

    4. Buds4All June 7, 2018 11:50 am

      There you have it….Liberal Scholars and Idiot Elected officials with all the answers!

    5. Pest Outwest June 7, 2018 1:19 pm

      “Kona literally could be uninhabitable”

      Would you relax? We’re a month into an event that will probably only last a few more weeks, maybe two months at the most, judging by previous flows in this area. It’s far more likely that the activity will move back to the middle of the rift and the flow will just be the lava supplied by the hot spot. Right now you have that, plus all the lava uprift that’s draining downhill. When that runs out it won’t be so bad.

      1. mikehira June 8, 2018 8:37 am

        The last eruption, at Puu Oo, lasted 35 years. Hawaii needs to take this opportunity to fix their air quality reporting on the web. Tourists who understand Hawaii know that the lava flows in Leilani Estates only threaten a tiny portion of the island. But they may still cancel there trips based on fears of poor air quality. Kona has a particularly bad AQI and is used as the default value for the South Kohala coast where there are a lot of big resorts. Hawaii needs to monitor the air in more locations.

        1. Pest Outwest June 8, 2018 4:06 pm

          That was not a lower rift zone event, those typically don’t last long.

          1. mikehira June 9, 2018 8:51 am

            Good point. I hope you are right and the lava flows end soon.

  6. mikehira June 7, 2018 10:16 am

    The two temporary monitoring sites in NELHA and Waikoloa, that were mentioned in the article, only measure SO2 and H2S, not PM2.5. There is no PM2.5 monitoring site north of Kona on the west coast. Is there any data showing that the air quality at the airport or in Waikoloa is any better than in Kailua-Kona?

  7. Chickie Galore June 7, 2018 10:37 am

    What on earth are they talking about? They want the gubament to blow the vog away? What the hell? We live on an active volcano. No one can fix the air quality. Go back to the mainland. What a bunch of time wasting boners. Hey! Ya think those folks in Guatemala are crying about their air quality? You pack of dodo heads should be ashamed for wasting people’s time with such a ridiculous stance.

    1. Du Mhan Yhu June 7, 2018 5:48 pm

      The left looks to an overwhelmingly massive goobermint to take care of everything, cradle to grave. Their answer to most every issue is more taxes, and more goobermint.

      Do not ask them to be self sufficient or think for themselves, goobermint uber alles.

    2. ypupule June 7, 2018 5:57 pm

      You made me laugh.

    3. Du Mhan Yhu June 7, 2018 8:18 pm

      Sorry Chickie

      I had a relapse back to my republican christian ways.

      I am now an atheist and 100% liberal

      I love everyone and government is here to help

  8. Jack Threadfin June 7, 2018 12:23 pm

    There are eight particulate monitors in Kona, see “purpleair dot com”

    1. mikehira June 7, 2018 1:49 pm

      The Purple Air monitors are not EPA monitors, and the government may not be able to base recommendation on them. The Purple Air monitors in Kona are now showing a significantly higher reading than the EPA AirNow Kona monitor. Which one should you believe?

      1. briala June 7, 2018 4:49 pm

        Purple Air monitors are particulates only, not SO2. I’ve been watching the SO2 specific monitors at “hiso2index dot info” and we’re fortunate to get little of that gas here in Kona. If the EPA readings are averaging it all together, it makes sense they’d be lower.

        Perhaps even the bigger point is that our winds and weather here can be significantly different over even short distances depending on geography, elevation, etc. Unless the two meters are stacked right on top of each other, I’d believe the one that is closest to you. It sounds like they’re adding more locations now but the original idea of giving the same reading for all of West Hawaii based on one monitor was flawed from the get go.

        1. mikehira June 8, 2018 2:06 am

          The AQI Index for AirNow in Kona is not a composite of the PM2.5 and SO2 readings. All readings for the various pollutants are separate. Only the worst one is reported.

          The AirNow monitor for Kona is near Kealakekua that read 64. There is an Purple Air monitor nearby that now reads 84.

      2. Jack Threadfin June 7, 2018 6:22 pm

        Purple Air, obviously 🙂

        Because it is easy to do a direct comparison to a large number of identical monitors across the planet.

        “Worse than downtown LA” is much more meaningful to humans than a rainbow of bureaucratic color codes.

        1. mikehira June 8, 2018 2:13 am

          It is not how well that the Purple Air monitors agree with each other, but how the AQI readings compare with past records which come from the EPA AirNow monitor.

          1. Jack Threadfin June 8, 2018 6:51 am

            At least we agree the PA monitors are consistent.

            As to utility, I find a comparison to LA/Honolulu/Hilo right now more meaningful than a comparison to Kona 10 years ago.

            The PA monitors also seem more relevant because they are evenly distributed where people live.

          2. mikehira June 8, 2018 8:08 am

            I think the best utility of the PA monitors is to compare the air in Kona to Waikoloa. The temporary EPA monitor that was put in Waikoloa measured SO2 and H2S, not PM2.5. How many tourists might have cancelled their Waikoloa reservations because they thought the AQI in Kona represented Waikoloa.

  9. LOL in Kona June 7, 2018 5:36 pm

    Well duh!
    Those goberment folk have to earn their
    ….cushy salary, cushy medical, cushy pension, cushy, cushy, cushy
    somehow, so “blue dots! “bad Pele made the air dirty!!”
    …where is Pele’s Environmental Impact Statement!!!

    and, don’t forget, they need to raise taxes
    …cut police! cut fire! cut medical! cut road work!! if you don’t pay!!
    but can’t cut the free money to give to 501(c)(3) friends
    ….that is only a million or so…
    …….or money to the loafers/leeches/druggies who might get mean!

  10. onceawarrior June 8, 2018 12:10 pm

    This simpleton says: live to the fullest what nature gives.
    Live according to what basic instincts and reflexes say.
    If vog is bad to the body, then relocate it to where air quality is acceptable.
    If the mind doesn’t like what government said, then be the entity to say it right.
    Who knows – the next big natural event may be a hurricane to blow vog and air particulates away!

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