Home Emergency Management News Kilauea Eruptions Creating Harmful Breathing Conditions and Skin/Eye Irritation
Kilauea Eruptions Creating Harmful Breathing Conditions and Skin/Eye Irritation

Kilauea Eruptions Creating Harmful Breathing Conditions and Skin/Eye Irritation

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By David E. Hubler
Contributor, EDM Digest

On Sunday, the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) issued a new Kilauea volcano air quality warning about laze.

But if you don’t know what laze is – or vog – you’re not a resident of Hawaii’s Big Island.

Laze Appearing on Hawaii’s Southeast Coast

Laze is short for lava haze, a hazardous condition that results when hot lava comes into contact with cold seawater. “The combination produces a dense white plume of steam laced with hydrochloric acid and glass particles. That is what is happening now on the island’s southeast coast,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported.

The plume of laze was expected to reach 15 miles along the southeast coastline on Monday. Officials have warned people to stay away.

The hydrochloric acid is created by the chemical reaction between the lava and the seawater, observatory spokeswoman Janet Babb told United Press International. The glass particles are formed when lava touches seawater and then breaks apart.

While a store-bought respirator can block the glass particles, it will not filter out hydrochloric acid. The acid can irritate skin and eyes and cause breathing difficulties, Babb added.

Vog from Volcanic Gases Affects Breathing

Kilauea erupted twice over the weekend, with one eruption sending ash up to 10,000 feet in the air. It prompted two volcanoes of 4.9 and 5.0 magnitude, as well as over 2,000 smaller earthquakes observed on the island since the start of the volcano’s activity.

But the volcanic air quality hazard of greatest concern on the Big Island is vog, a hazy mix of moisture and volcanic gases that can affect breathing, the Star-Advertiser noted.

According to The University of Hawaii at Hilo (UHH), these gases come out of the molten lava rock at varying pressures. They consist of water vapor, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen, and a variety of other acid and inert gases.

“Once these gases enter the atmosphere, many react very quickly. Hydrogen reacts with oxygen in the air to form water vapor, and sulfuric acid aerosols (from sulfur dioxide) produce the fume clouds that are carried by the wind and become dispersed into an unpleasant cloud of vog,” UHH explained.

Big Island Has the Highest Rate of Sulfur Dioxide Emissions in US

The island of Hawaii (commonly referred to as the Big Island) has the highest rate of sulfur dioxide emissions in the nation. That distinction was established even before the current toxic eruptions from Kilauea’s East Rift Zone.

In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency rated Hawaii County as having “the highest one-hour rate of sulfur dioxide in the U.S.” A study led by Dr. Elizabeth Tam, chair of medicine at the University of Hawaii Medical School, found that the “air pollution output from Kilauea was equal to one-tenth of the annual pollution for all of China,” the Star-Advertiser said.

Vog Results in Headaches and Irritation to the Lungs and Eyes

At higher concentrations, vog can result in headaches and irritation to the lungs and eyes. UHH warns, “For people with asthma and other respiratory problems, the effects are much more serious, causing a tightening of the airways in the lungs and making it very difficult to breathe.”

To date, however, there’s been no clear scientific evidence that vog causes lingering damage to normally healthy individuals.
Precautions Against Vog

The university cites several strategies to reduce the amount of vog and gases in indoor air and to minimize the irritation from these compounds:

  • When possible, stay indoors with windows and doors closed and sealed.
  • Use an air conditioner or a dehumidifier. They condense water and remove particulate sulfur compounds and acid gases from indoor air.
  • Reduce your indoor exposure using something as simple as a fan. Take a hand towel or a piece of cheesecloth. Saturate it with a thin paste of baking soda and water. Drape the cloth over the fan and turn it on at a low or medium speed. The baking soda will neutralize the sulfur compounds and the moisture will help remove particles from the air.
David Hubler David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor at APUS. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies. David has taught high school English in Connecticut and at Northern Virginia Community College. He has a master’s degree for Teachers of English from the University of New Hampshire and a B.A. in English from New York University. In March 2017, Rowman & Littlefield published the paperback edition of David’s latest book, "The Nats and the Grays, How Baseball in the Nation's Capital Survived WWII and Changed the Game Forever."

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