Sulfur Dioxide Emissions Threaten Big Island Residents

VOLCANOES NATIONAL PARK, Hawaii Island (KHNL ) -- An emergency health advisory is issued on the Big Island, as southeasterly winds threaten to carry dangerous gas emissions from Kilauea Volcano over populated areas.

The winds turned more favorable Tuesday afternoon, but park rangers still decided to shut down the popular Volcanoes National Park because of rising gas levels.

And it's not just Big Island residents who need to take precuations.

Depending which way the wind blows, the entire state could be affected by the sulfur dioxide gas being pumped into the air by Kilauea.

Especially those most prone to respiratory illnesses.

But for several Big Island communities downwind of Kilauea, the time to take precautions -- is now.

The sign at Volcanoes National Park's Visitor Center tells the story.

And with light southeasterly winds forecast over the next three days, Big Island Civil Defense issued the health advisory early Tuesday morning for Mauna Loa and Ohia Estates, Volcano Village, the Keahou Ranch Area, and the Volcano Golf Subdivision.

"What's happening now is all resources, Federal, State and County are monitoring the situation and checking with the National Weather Service to see what's going to happen with the rest of the day and night," said Big Island Mayor Harry Kim.

Since December, sulfur dioxide emissions have increased ten fold.

And so has the potential danger.

"Sulfur dioxide is an irritant gas irritates the nose and throat and reacts to oxygen, moisture and sunlight converts to finely divided sulfuric acid particles," said Geochemist Jeff Sutton.

Particles so fine, they can wind up in your lungs if you're not careful.

Which is why the Hawaii Department of Health urges everyone in affected areas to stay indoors, use air conditioning if possible, and simply chill out.

"Reducing exercise prevents people from breathing hard and getting that sulfur dioxide deep into their lungs where it may cause some adverse effects," said John Peard with the Hawaii Department of Health.

Even if the winds remain favorable, the problem isn't going away.

Unlike a fire, there's no snuffing out a volcano.

"Our hope is that emissions from Halemaumau will cease."

And Mayor Kim warns another big part of the problem in dealing with the carbon dioxide, is that levels can be dangerously high, even when the air is clear.

"Vog is just emissions mixed in with water vapor and dust particles but the S-O2 is the invisible gas within it."

And again, it's not just Big Island residents who can be affected by the dangerous gas.

The Health Department is asking everyone to keep tabs of the situation, especially people with pre existing resipiratory illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema.