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An acrid cloud of ash rising some 25,000 feet over the Kilauea volcano closed nearby schools May 17 and sparked health warnings as Hawaii grapples with the pollution being spewed.
Unlike some states, Hawaii doesn’t have air quality issues resulting from industrial manufacturing. What it does have are a fair number of cars, as well as ongoing emissions from volcanoes, which send out plumes of sulfur dioxide, a pollutant that can aggravate breathing conditions such as asthma.
The air quality around the eruption site is still rated as either “moderate,” or “good,” according to real-time data from the Hawaii Department of Public Health. That’s because, while concentrations of sulfur dioxide can be dangerously high close to the crater and its fissures, trade winds typically blow it out to sea.
“The primary concerns at this time are emissions of sulfur dioxide and volcanic ash,” Janice Okubo, a spokesperson for the department of health, said in an email. “The Hawaii National Guard and Department of Health personnel are using hand-held air quality monitors to collect emissions data needed to issue public advisories.”
Volcanic eruptions often dwarf every other source of sulfur dioxide in Hawaii. In fact, Kilauea in 2014 emitted a total of 2 million tons of sulfur dioxide from the Halema’uma’u and Pu’u O’o vents, while all human-caused emissions together accounted for a tiny 0.1 percent of total emissions on the island, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt tweeted May 17 that the agency “remains on the ground assisting #Hawaii and our federal partners in monitoring air quality and ensuring the public is informed of all potential health risks from the #KilaueaVolcano eruption.”
Breathing sulfur dioxide is unhealthy on its own, but when mixed with moisture, oxygen, emissions from cars, and sunlight in the atmosphere it creates “vog,” short for volcanic smog.
“As the magma travels to the surface, it releases a kind of whitish gray plume, and you can certainly feel it, even on other islands.” Wendy Stovall, a volcanologist with Geological Survey’s Volcano Hazards Program, said.
Vog has actually been a common occurrence on the Big Island since the mid-1980s. It can affect people suffering from respiratory conditions such as asthma and bronchitis, as well as irritate the eyes, nose, throat, and cause symptoms ranging from flu- and pneumonia-like illness to headaches and fatigue.
“It’s not like the rotten-egg smell; it’s something you actually feel in the back of your throat,” she said
Stovall said the chemistry of vog can also change as the plumes move through rain, creating a kind of acid rain, that can corrode metals and damage plants even if it doesn’t cause widespread human health effects.
The National Weather Service had issued an ashfall advisory for the volcano. Elevated sulfur dioxide levels also forced the closure of nearby schools, including the aptly named Volcano School of Arts and Sciences.
Emissions related to the volcano aren’t expected to interfere with Hawaii’s ability to meet federal air quality standards for sulfur dioxide, currently 75 parts per billion, because the EPA allows states to write off that pollution if they can show that it was caused by natural or one-time, man-made events that couldn’t be controlled.
Hawaii hasn’t yet made that request, the EPA said, but it has routinely sought the exemption for past eruptions.
The volcano’s activity has also prompted an emergency call to agencies on the mainland to see if they can loan the island several more portable air quality monitors—called E-BAMs.
“We put the call out a call to our members, because Hawaii is in the middle of an exceptional event,” said Miles Keogh, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, a group representing state and local air-quality management organizations.
Keogh said exceptional events such as the one in Hawaii are not something his agency has built a structured response to—yet.
“But I think we’re definitely moving in that direction,” he said. “Between all of the wildfires, hurricanes, and now volcanoes, this just seems like something we are doing a lot more lately.”
The Geological Survey also issued a “Red Warning,” meaning a volcanic eruption is imminent and could affect safety along aircraft routes, according to a May 15 tweet. It was the first such warning since the eruptions began.
Concerns over volcanic ash ejected during the 2010 eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland resulted in the largest air travel shutdown since World War II, as transportation authorities worried planes traveling over the North Atlantic to Europe could potentially suck ash particles into their engines.
In the case of Kilauea, USGS’ Stovall said the scale of any flight disruptions are likely to be minimal, since Hawaii sits in the middle of the Pacific, and not close to major flyways.
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