'Hard to breathe': Volcanic fumes plague Big Island communities

'Hard to breathe': Volcanic fumes plague Big Island communities
Fissure no. 8 just keeps going in lower Puna, where eruptions started May 3. (Image: Peter Tang)
Adjusting to a life of toxic gases is proving difficult residents of Opihikao. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Adjusting to a life of toxic gases is proving difficult residents of Opihikao. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Ongoing volcanic eruptions have dramatically altered landscapes on the Big Island. (Image: Peter Tang)
Ongoing volcanic eruptions have dramatically altered landscapes on the Big Island. (Image: Peter Tang)

PAHOA, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - It's not just lava that's changed life for thousands on the Big Island.

Volcanic emissions are making some spots unlivable, changing the landscape — killing acres of forests and grasses — and significantly degrading air quality in a number of areas.

The air quality adjustment has proven especially difficult for those who live in Opihikao.

Rodger and Ramona Taylor say they've watched the area change before their eyes as hazardous fumes fill the air.

"It went from green jungle can't see anything but me in our little area, to all of a sudden there's neighbors everywhere," said Ramona Taylor, an Opihikao resident. "It's brown and trees look like a hurricane had hit — just brown leaves everywhere."

Everyday the Taylors assess their air quality from the elevated sulfur dioxide levels and decide whether they should stay or go.

"There's times when it's heavier - especially in the middle of the night," Rodger Taylor said. "The wind will quit blowing and it will settle down into the lower area and you can actually see a flashlight beam in the smoke and so at that time it can be hard to breathe."

Rodger says he made a safe room with an air purifier and air conditioner so he has a place to retreat when breathing becomes difficult.

Many of the Taylor's neighbors with children and pets have already relocated from the area, but the pair says they're determined to stay as long as Highway 130 remains open.

The Hawaii Department of Health is holding community meetings Wednesday and Thursday to address residents' concerns about air quality.

Wednesday's meeting will be at Konawena Elementary School in Kealakekua at 5 p.m., and Thursday's will be at Waikaloa Elementary & Middle School Cafeteria at 6 p.m.

"The warning is get out if it feels bad and it's really hard to tell — sometimes it smells like sulfur, but mostly it's this feeling you get kind of like a heaviness," said Ramona Taylor. "It feels ominous, it doesn't feel right."

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