Vog returns to West Hawaii: Officials warn of potential air quality hazards

  • Vog returns to West Hawaii in wake of the latest eruption at Halemaumau Crater. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Vog returns to West Hawaii in wake of the latest eruption at Halemaumau Crater. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Vog returns to West Hawaii in wake of the latest eruption at Halemaumau Crater. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

West Hawaii residents awoke Tuesday to a blanket of vog for the first time in more than two years.

The plume of volcanic emissions once typical over Hawaii Island’s leeward areas returned just over a day after Pele came home to Halema‘uma‘u at Kilauea’s summit with an explosive eruption at 9:36 p.m. Sunday that sent fissures of lava 165 feet in the air, lighting the night sky and evaporating the once 161-foot deep lake in the caldera.

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Once the lake was gone, removing any means for dissolving the sulfur dioxide (SO2) before it and other aerosols enter the air, Halemaumau crater’s SO2 levels reached a rate of 16,000 tons per day, said State Toxicologist Diana Felton with the Department of Health’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office.

That’s nearly identical to 2008, when the summit crater opened and hosted a lava lake for a decade, but less than during the volcano’s last eruption in 2018.

“Certainly, there were some pretty significant vog hazards at that time (in 2008), and we’re seeing some of that now, but it’s all very dependent on weather conditions, tradewinds and the way things are blowing and how,” Felton said Tuesday.

Fanned by southerly winds, the vog typically moves across the Ka‘u District, hitting first areas like Pahala, Naalehu and Ocean View, before getting caught up in sea breezes that bring it toward West Hawaii and onshore.

“We’re certainly seeing some impact over yesterday and today downwind of the crater in places like Pahala and Ocean View, that’s where we’ve been picking up the higher SO2 levels,” she said. “The biggest concern with that is, depending on people’s sensitivity to it, it’s going to cause respiratory symptoms like irritation of the nose and throat, and, yes, in some cases, difficulty breathing or worsening of asthma-type conditions. We worry the most about those people with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD — those are the people are going to be the most sensitive to the effects of vog or sulfur dioxide in the air.”

Doctors and officials advised those with pre-existing conditions to make sure they have ample medication on hand.

“For those people, I definitely recommend that they make sure they have their medications, that they see their primary care doc and make sure that they have their inhalers and everything else that they need so that they don’t run to a problem and that way keep them out of the hospital and ER,” said West Hawaii Community Health Center Medical Director Chris Russell, PA. “It’s hard to say what the volcano will do, it may be just a little burp and then it stops, but certainly if it continues and people are noticing they are using inhalers more often, they need to go see their doc and get adjusted to a new normal, a new baseline.”

Even healthy people can feel the impacts of sulfur dioxide, the main component of vog or “volcanic smog,” which irritates the nose, throat and airways to cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or a tight feeling around the chest.

Physical complaints associated with vog exposure include headaches, burning, itchy or watery eyes, throat pain, fatigue, difficulty breathing, and even flu-like symptoms.

The best way to keep from becoming “vogged” down? Avoid outdoor activities of all forms, and if you have to venture out, make sure you’re keeping tabs on the air quality and have a plan in place to react quickly should the quality drop. Staying away from smoking and other respiratory irritants, as well as keeping hydrated and generally taking care of oneself help can help, too.

“If people are noticing symptoms — they are having difficulty breathing, noticing irritation in their eyes, nose and throat, or cough — they should either stay inside in a relative sealed environment or try to leave the area,” Felton advised. “As a worst case, an emergency case scenario, a car running with the air conditioning set to recirculate is a relatively safe place, particularly if you are using it to the leave the area.”

And leaving the area doesn’t mean you have to drive clear across the island or be away for an extended period, she said.

“One thing that we have learned over the years of these different events is that the conditions change really rapidly and they can often be very highly localized so sometimes just leaving the location for a short period of time, going a few miles away, can often be a much healthier place to be, even close by,” Felton said.

That’s where keeping an eye on air quality and other information becomes key, and the state and other partner agencies have created the Hawaii Interagency Vog Information Dashboard to help the public do that vog.ivhhn.org. The Department of Health also operates permanent air quality monitors around the island, and is looking into the deployment of temporary monitoring stations remaining from the 2018 eruption.

“Because conditions change so fast we really want people to be equipped with the ability to make rapid decisions because it may take a while for directives to come from county Civil Defense or state emergency management officials,” she said. “We really want people to do their best to be aware and know whats going on and have good plans so that they can adjust as things change in their localized environment.”

As of Tuesday evening, air quality at the Kona, Ocean View, and Pahala monitoring sites was listed as green or “good,” with the concentration of sulfur dioxide in the air at 0.01 parts per million in Kona, 0.03 ppm in Ocean View and 0.00 in Pahala. Earlier Tuesday, Pahala was listed as orange or “unhealthy for sensitive groups” when sulfur dioxide concentrations reached 0.4, according to the state Department of Health’s Short Term SO2 Advisory website at hiso2index.info.

Fine particulate matter, which are 2.5 microns or smaller and includes SO4, or sulfate, was elevated Tuesday evening in Ocean View with www.airnow.gov labeling air quality there as “moderate,” giving it a 63 on the index that runs from 0 (good) to 500 (hazardous). Moderate air quality, which is acceptable but may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution, starts at 51. Kona’s air quality was in the green, or “good,” at 49.

Face coverings and masks used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 do not provide protection from sulfur dioxide or vog.

“Some of the N95 masks can help a little when there’s ash and particulate matter in the air, but for sulfur dioxide (SO2) you really need a more advanced respirator,” said Felton. “We just want people to be aware of that while we still encourage wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID, it’s not going to help with the sulfur dioxide or vog.”

That’s because SO2 and sulfate aerosols are far smaller than the respiratory droplets that carry the novel coronavirus. Respiratory droplets are typically 5 to 10 micrometers while vog particles are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter.

“The particles are so small that they could fit right through” the material, said Felton. Vog and SO2 are “far smaller than a respiratory droplet.”

With northeasterly tradewinds forecast through Friday, the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Vog Measurement and Prediction Project said the vog may continue to impact areas southwest of the Kilauea summit caldera, including the western half of the southern coast of Hawaii Island (the Ka‘u District).

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“Vog is also likely to impact the leeward side of Hawaii island (also known as the Kona side), as the Hawaiian eddy will transport vog onshore,” according to the project’s forecast, which noted air quality may intermittently reach the “moderate” category.

The National Weather Service noted “significant impacts to air quality are not expected, but we are still learning about the concentrations of particulates associated with this new eruption.”

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