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DOH: Special face masks may give 'false sense of security' from sulfur dioxide

(Image: Hawaii News Now) (Image: Hawaii News Now)
PUNA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) -

It's not just spewing lava that's posing a threat in Puna's Leilani Estates, where a number of eruptions are threatening homes and roads.

Dangerously high levels of sulfur dioxide are also causing concern.

And depending on how long the eruptions last, experts say the gas could end up affecting people statewide.

Just like vog wanders to other islands, sulfur dioxide can, too. 

The gas is especially dangerous to people with allergies and those with lung conditions.

"This is like vog 100 times over," said Dr. Jeffrey Kam, an allergy & immunology specialist.

Symptoms include shortness of breath for people with lung disorders, wheezing and coughing along with itchy, watery eyes accompanied by nasal and throat irritation. If you're in very close proximity to the sulfur dioxide, it can even cause skin irritation. 

Health experts previously advised that special N-95 face masks, similar to medical face masks, would provide adequate protection.

But as the level of sulfur dioxide in the air continues to elevate, that's no longer the case.

"These masks — the N-95s — they will not afford protection. It will give the wearer a false sense of security," Alvin Bronstein, Branch Chief of EMS and Injury Prevention Systems said. 

He added, the best way to protect yourself is to steer clear of the area. 

"Individuals in the inclusion zone should leave the area dictated by police and fire department. That's the best precaution and way to protect oneself," Bronstein said.

People with lung conditions need to take special precaution because exposure could land them in the hospital.

"If you have allergies or asthma, make sure you have your medications, especially if you're closer to it because it may harder for them to get it at some point," Kam said. "Also talk to your doctor even before you have a symptom. Maybe we'll say take more of this medication the preventative kind of protective measure. You want to block it before the reactions start."

If you're in close proximity to the sulfur dioxide and can't get further away, stay indoors. This goes for your pets, too.

Air conditioners and purifiers may also help. 

If it starts raining you're going to want to go indoors immediately and rinse off.

Sulfur dioxide in the atmosphere can produce acid rain that can irritate your eyes and skin.

"It's like bleach on your skin. So if you go outdoors wear a hat or glasses or goggles and a long sleeve shirt and pants," Kam said.

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