May 17, 2005

Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano a Big Polluter

VOLCANO, Hawaii (AP) -- The Kilauea volcano, one of Hawaii's most popular tourist attractions, is also by far the state's worst air polluter. Researchers now are trying to determine if that also makes it one of the state's biggest health risks.

Since it began erupting on Jan. 3, 1983, the volcano has been sending an average of 1,000 metric tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere each day, according to the Hawaii chapter of the American Lung Association.

This is 6,000 times the amount emitted by a major industrial polluter on the mainland, making Kilauea the nation's top producer of sulfur dioxide.

The sulfur dioxide from Kilauea reacts with other chemicals in the air to form a hazy, naturally occurring pollution known locally as "vog," or volcanic smog. When the lava enters the ocean, concentrations of hydrochloric acid are also formed.

The earliest mention of vog in the press were in 1950. Most of these early reports mentioned eye irritation and allergy-like symptoms, but generally implied the condition was benign. But by the mid-1980s, Hawaii had the highest asthma death rate in the country, according to the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

Although research teams have conducted a number of studies over the past two decades, definitive conclusions on vog dangers have yet to emerge.

Even without extensive data, Big Island residents have long suspected that vog exposure is dangerous. During "bad air days," schools routinely keep asthmatics and other sensitive students indoors and sometimes cancel outdoor sporting events.

In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service have developed a real-time sulfur dioxide monitoring and advisory plan to help alert visitors and workers near the Kilauea caldera in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

According to a 1995 vog symposium report issued by the Hawaii Department of Health concluded that "sulfur dioxide, fine particles in the air such as sulfates and acid aerosols, may individually or in combination present significant risk."

In another study, published in 1996, a team led by emergency medicine physician Dr. Fred Holschuh compared Big Island emergency room visits with incidents of high vog levels between 1981 and 1991.

Holschuh and his colleagues concluded that those living in high vog exposure areas sought treatment for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at Big Island hospital emergency rooms more often when vog levels were high.

But to date there has been little hard scientific evidence that vog is a primary cause of respiratory problems on the Big Island. Dr. Elizabeth Tam, a pulmonologist at the University of Hawaii-Manoa school of medicine, is currently conducting a five-year study on the possibility of a direct link.

Since 2002, community researcher teams have been taking biweekly air quality measurements throughout the island. They also are monitoring about 2,000 Big Island elementary school students over a four-year period.

"Sulfur dioxide levels are highest in Ka'u, with particulate matter and acidity highest in South Kona -- but they do not rival the amounts in any steel town in Pennsylvania, or in traffic on the San Diego Freeway," Tam said. The highest levels in Kona are lower than average levels in Monterrey, Calif., she said

Tam also noted that the greatest percentage of children with physician-diagnosed asthma live on the Hamakua coast, a part of the island with the least amount of vog. Mold, pollen and smoking also may contribute to the prevalence of asthma.

Tam said that the American Lung Association recommends that people stay indoors during periods of heavy vog. Because vog levels tend to be higher in the afternoons, the group also advises people to conduct outdoor activities in the morning.


On the Net:

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park: http://www.nps.gov/havo/

USG Hawaii Volcano Observatory: http://hvo.wr.usgs.gov/