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.
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.
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.”