Kilauea: State's biggest air polluter?

By Paul Drewes - bio | email & Anthony Ferreira

BIG ISLAND (KHNL) - Ask anyone living on the Big Island about vog and they'll have a story to share.

You can see it, smell it...even taste it, they say.

But what no one can say for sure just yet, are the long-term effects vog is having on the health of residents.

It's a growing crisis and it's all centered around one of the most active volcanoes on the planet.

In the Hawaiian language, its name means "spewing" or "much spreading."

But there's much more than lava coming out of Kilauea Volcano.

It is the largest source of sulfur dioxide in all of the United States.

"It's at least 300 tons, usually it's at least 1600 tons a day," said Dr. Elizabeth Tam, Chair of Medicine at the John A. Burns School of Medicine.

The gas reacts with other chemicals in the air to create what we call vog.

It's been a reality for residents of the big island since 19-83, when Kilauea's current eruption began.

But the situation got even worse last March, when a vent opened up at Halemaumau Crater.

"You know, when it was really pumping out last year it was hitting 6,000 tons in one day. That's phenomenal," said Dr. Tam.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the National Park Service monitors sulfur dioxide levels, within Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

"Recently it hasn't been as high sulfur dioxide concentrations as it was in 2008, but it's still in order of 6 or 7 tons prior to 2008, said Jim Kauahikaua of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.

Because of those levels, a number of areas once open to the public are now just too dangerous.

"This area that we're looking at, most of it was closed by the national park in February because of the increased sulfur dioxide concentrations that were present in that area because that's all downwind in trade wind times," Kauahikaua said.

While this may be the home of Madame Pele, it's Mother Nature that plays an important role in just how vog spreads: it all comes down to the winds.

"The thing that usually makes it voggy, it's usually still wind, no wind or it's wind that's coming up off the equator, so it's very moist," said Dr. Tam.

Moisture is exactly what attracts the sulfur dioxide molecule and that includes the moisture in our bodies.

"It loves water, it sticks to your mucus membrane, like your eyes, your gums, it sort of gets absorbed there. And very rarely does it go down deep into the lungs," Dr. Tam said. "Certainly people are complaining of congestion, runny eyes, irritation especially in the upper airways."

The long-term health effects of vog, however, are still being studied.

For now, it is just as unknown as when all this activity at Kilauea will end.