Vog vexes federal officials
CDC team studying the health effects of vog
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HILO » Volcanic fumes, and the breathing difficulties they bring with them, can be intense in one area and completely absent a mile away, Hawaii County Civil Defense Director Quince Mento told visiting federal health officials yesterday.
With that in mind, Rich Nickle of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta answered that it will be hard to get information out to people. "Your response has to be nimble," he said.
Four officials from the Atlanta center began a weeklong visit to the Big Island yesterday to assess the degree of danger that vog poses to people. They will also try to make suggestions about how to respond.
But it was clear that the federal officials have experience with completely different types of air pollution on the mainland. Sulfur chemicals on the mainland are generally not found in the relatively moderate but lingering amounts found in vog.
"We really don't understand what the health effects might be," Nickle said.
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HILO » With the public pressing for more information on how to deal with periodically high levels of volcanic fumes, four officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta came to Hilo to offer help yesterday.
But the officials quickly explained that they have practically no experience with this kind of air hazard, and there is not much written about it, either.
Informed that sulfur dioxide, the main problem chemical in vog or volcanic fog, typically triggers alerts at a level of about 1 to 3 parts per million, federal official Rich Nickle said that was a smaller threshold than he is used to.
"We haven't been in a situation where you have peaks in this kind of range," he said. "We really don't know what the health effects might be."
The federal officials were briefed by Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim and Civil Defense Director Quince Mento, the first in a series of meetings the officials will have throughout the island this week.
Their efforts will focus entirely on the effects of vog on people. The fumes have also been damaging and killing crops, especially protea flowers, but agriculture is outside these officials' expertise.
Kim explained how emissions of sulfur dioxide both at Kilauea's summit and at Puu Oo, 10 miles east of the summit, have increased dramatically since the beginning of the year.
The summit emissions have gone from 150 metric tons per day to as high as 2,500 metric tons, while the normal level of 2,000 tons downslope has spiked to as high as 7,100 tons per day.
For much of the last 25 years, tradewinds have carried the smaller amounts to the southwest and around to Kona, sometimes as far as Honolulu. Now there is much more of the gas, and flip-flopping winds sometimes carry the dense clouds into neighboring Volcano Village and 30 miles downhill to Hilo.
But hits from the gas can be focused and short-lived. "What we're finding out is the gas can be extremely high in one location," Mento said. "One mile down the road, absolutely nothing."
Nickle saw the problem. "It's going to be a very significant challenge to get that kind of information out," he said.
Actually, the county Fire Department, public schools using Fire Department equipment, the state Department of Health, the University of Hawaii and the federal Hawaiian Volcano Observatory now have a total of about 100 monitoring devices on the island.
View frequently asked questions about vog and volcanic emissions from the state Department of Health.|
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And the Department of Health has set up a hot line -- (866) 767-5044 -- where people can call for the latest information and advice.
But as Nickle said, no one knows the effect of repeated moderate exposures.
Later in the day, Mento noted that no one has died from vog, and only one person has been hospitalized with acute asthma since the beginning of the year.
Federal lung specialist Fernando Holguin said a key response that people with lung problems can make is to have enough of their medicine and use it. People often get out of the habit of doing so, he said.
While officials often say sensitive people should remain in their home and not work hard during a vog incident, Kim suggested leaving the area if necessary. "For the general community, the safe place will probably be their car," he said.
"Everyone understands this is nature. We need to give them information on how this impacts them," Kim said.