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How to protect yourself from sulfur dioxide in vog, acid rain

HONOLULU (KHON2) - Volcanic activity from Kilauea Volcano is creating a serious hazard for residents through its release of sulfur dioxide.

Toxic emissions from the recent eruptions in Leilani Estates and activity at Halemaumau Crater continue to be a concern.

Vog is caused by a mixture of volcanic emissions including water vapor, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide gas which eventually converts to smaller particles, creating the haze we see outside.

A shift in the wind could leave Hawaii island in the thick of it, especially the Leeward and South Kona coasts, and areas nearest to the eruptions in the Puna and Kau districts. 

John Bravender, National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist, says even areas upwind of the eruptions should pay attention to the winds.

If they weaken and turn easterly, "that will limit the amount of clearing, ventilation or fresh air brought through the area," he explained. "You need to be aware of what's coming in the future, because that can turn and you might find yourself in the heart of the vog plume."

The presence of vog and the possibility of acid rain can affect people far beyond the evacuation zone. How far vog spreads depends on the winds, but we're told it can easily move past the Hawaiian islands.

"In the case of the 1950 eruption of Mauna Loa, they were reporting vog in the Philippines," said Steve Businger, chair of the Atmospheric Sciences Department at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Vog can cause headaches, burning eyes, scratchy throats, and coughing, especially among those who have health issues like asthma or emphysema.

Dr. Kalani Brady at the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine says the best way to protect against the vog is to avoid it.

"It irritates the the nasal pharynx and oral pharynx, and then it irritates the lungs themselves," Brady said. "The most common symptom that you have is a cough, because the lungs are trying to expel this foreign body of hydrogen sulfide and sulfuric acid, and then of course the ash as well."

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Brady suggested getting an asthma inhaler to help open up the breathing tubes to alleviate a cough.

KHON2 asked if masks can protect against the toxic fumes.

"It is okay for the particulate matter, but the hydrogen sulfide gas goes right through this mask and will not block the intake of hydrogen sulfide to the lungs and the sulfuric acid that results from it," Brady said. "(Masks) really do not work. Masks are out. Avoidance of the area is in."

"Would an air purifier work?" KHON2 asked. 

"It would be overwhelmed by the amount of hydrogen sulfide that is being emitted from these vents," Brady said.

If you have to be outdoors when vog is in the air, it's important to stay hydrated and keep eye drops and over-the-counter nasal sprays handy to help reduce upper respiratory symptoms. You should also limit strenuous outdoor activities.

If you begin to wheeze, Brady says you should seek medical attention.

When levels of vog are elevated:

  • Avoid outdoor activities that cause heavy breathing,
  • Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration,
  • Avoid smoking and second-hand smoke,
  • Stay indoors and close windows and doors prior to gas inundation,
  • If an air conditioner is used, set it to recirculate,
  • Always keep medications on hand and readily available,
  • Daily prescribed medications, should be taken on schedule and may provide relief from the effects of sulfur dioxide, and
  • Contact a doctor as soon as possible if any health problems develop.

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Officials warn there is also a possibility of acidic rain which is caused by sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides reacting with water, oxygen, and other chemicals.

Scientists say it's especially likely should the lava level within Halemaumau Crater drop to the level of groundwater. The influx of water could mix with the magma and cause steam-driven explosions. 

"We would expect each of these explosions to produce a burp of sulfur dioxide gas as well. When that mixes with the water in the atmosphere, it can produce acid rain," said Tina Neal, U.S. Geological Survey Hawaiian Volcano Observatory Scientist-in-Charge, "but I'll remind the Volcano community, you've been dealing with that for 10 years now, so you have practice, and I don't think we would expect the conditions with regard to acid rain to be any worse in this type of activity than you have experienced already."

Acidic rain can affect water catchment systems. If you have one, you should monitor your system closely and use a PH filter.

"In the same vein, the kind of particulate infiltration into your water systems, you've also been dealing with to some degree with the Pele's hair and other fine pieces of volcanic glass that have been lofted into the atmosphere during the lava lake period," Neal noted.


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