Government funds study on vog's impact on children

Dr. Elizabeth Tam
Dr. Elizabeth Tam
Dr. Wallace Matthews
Dr. Wallace Matthews

By Leland Kim - bio | email

KAKAAKO (KHNL) - Vog, that volcanic ash that coats our air from time to time, is a part of life on the islands.  But what does it do to your health, especially our children's health?  New funding announced Thursday may help find answers.

The University of Hawaii's John A. Burns School of Medicine will receive close to a $100,000 this year to study the impact of vog on children.  This allows the school to continue its study, which started six years ago.

A layer of sulfur dioxide covers the Big Island like a gray blanket. Vog -- or fog mixed with volcanic ash -- can make it difficult to breathe, especially for kids.

"Children seem to be more sensitive," said Dr. Wallace Matthews, a pediatric pulmonologist practicing in the Ala Moana neighborhood of Honolulu.  "Their airways are smaller as you would imagine. Therefore they have more side effects from any kind of irritants."

Dr. Matthews has been taking care of kids' respiratory problems for 35 years.

"Dr. Matthews, what percentage of your patients would you say have vog related issues?" asked KHNL.

"Probably 15 to 20 percent have vog related issues," he said. "Those are the kids who have actually asthma and lung disease to start who get worse when they're exposed to vog."

That's why the federal government awarded the John A. Burns School of Medicine a grant to study vog's effect on Hawaii's children.

"I'm very pleased to get it," said Dr. Elizabeth Tam, a Burns School of Medicine professor and chair of medicine.  "It's a good starter."

Dr. Tam began studying vog's effects on children on the Big Island back in 2002.  Now, she can continue her research.

"Over time we're going to see if some of the children who are more heavily exposed have slower lung growth," said Dr. Tam.

A key piece is a portable sulfur dioxide monitor, which allows anyone -- even kids -- to measure vog levels no matter where they are.

"So that's the beauty of it," said Dr. Tam. "That it's really community driven and fully community participatory."

And community doctors hope the study can help find some answers.

"Many of my patients will tell me that they can appreciate when there's vog over here on Oahu because the kids actually start coughing more, especially at night," said Dr. Matthews.

Research to help quiet those vog-induced coughs.

The funding is $95,000 for this year, and it's renewable for up to four more years.  So it's close to half a million dollars.

Senators Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) helped push this federal grant through.