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The Wrath of Vog


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Sabine Hendreschke, who has lived in Wood Valley for 26 years, says she’s never before seen such bad vog. “It was horrible last summer,” she says. “People were despairing. It is still bad at times, but now we just live with it.”

Vog is not a new phenomenon, of course. For instance, there was, says Jim Kauahikaua, scientist-in-charge at the USGS’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, a lava lake at the summit of Kilauea from the time Westerners first recorded their observations until 1924, when there were several explosive eruptions.

“We have photos of the gas plume prior to 1924,” he says, “and it looks very similar to the current one. It probably emitted just as much SO2 as is being released now by the Halemaumau vent.” Few written accounts from that time reference unpleasant encounters with vog in Pahala, or anywhere that is more than a few miles of the summit. (“Maybe people had tougher lives back then and vog was the least of their concerns,” suggests Kauahikaua.)

Regardless, we may have to live with the vog for a long time. Scientists at Hawai‘i Volcanoes Observatory say that Kilauea Volcano will continue to erupt. “The magma supply to Kilauea started to increase in 2002,” says Kauahikaua, “and the results of that increase started becoming apparent on the surface in mid-2007. We are guessing that a situation that built up over years will continue for years, not days or weeks.”

Merilyn Harris, Kau Hospital administrator, holding a vog monitor, along with Nona Wilson, director of nursing.

Photo: Kirk Lee Aeder

Vog and Health

In healthy people, vog can cause headaches, watery eyes, sore throats, flulike symptoms, a lack of energy and breathing problems. For people with asthma and other respiratory problems, it can be a lot more serious, causing a tightening of the airways in the lungs and making it hard to breathe. Vog is definitely making people sick, but it’s hard to find anyone with hard numbers on how many.

A state Department of Health study done when vog was at its peak last year found Kona and Kau hospitals’ high vog levels had a “modest but statistically significant effect on emergency department visits for respiratory emergencies.”

Bernadette Longo, an epidemiologist and nurse from the University of Nevada at Reno, is a researcher with the Kilauea Volcano Health Study. Since 2003, the ongoing study has been asking, “What are the health effects from exposure to vog across the life span?” and “How does the community live with vog?” Her study has found ambient and indoor levels of volcanic air pollution above the World Health Organization’s recommended exposure levels. She also found that 35 percent of informants living in Kau report their health is affected by the eruption—especially current and former smokers and those with chronic respiratory disease.

On the other hand, Dr. Elizabeth Tam, from the University of Hawaii John A. Burns School of Medicine, studied 2,000 Big Island children and asthma for three years and found the Big Island’s windward side, the part of the island with the least amount of vog, has more kids with asthma. That research showed tobacco smoke to be more strongly correlated with asthma than vog.

Aaron Ueno, the state Department of Health’s acting district health manager for the Big Island, admits that no one really knows the long-term health effects of living with vog. “It’s a concern,” he says. “There are people with chronic bronchitis and emphysema who have moved away.”

Meanwhile, the Big Island’s healthcare infrastructure struggles to keep up with vog’s effects.

For residents of vog-ridden Kau, where students “shelter in place” (stay inside, with doors closed with air conditioner units on) at recess when sulfur dioxide monitors show hazardous conditions, there’s only Pahala’s 21-room Kau Hospital. It’s the only hospital, emergency room, outpatient x-ray department and pharmacy serving the entire district, which is the size (though not the population) of the entire island of Oahu.
The 30-plus-year-old building was designed to be cooled by trade winds—so not only does it lack air conditioning, it can’t even be closed up tightly against vog when needed.

Merilyn Harris, Kau Hospital administrator, says the hospital has applied for capital improvement money from the state, and has listed air quality-related problems when asking for federal stimulus money.

“Twice we’ve had to close the rural health clinic, which is attached to the hospital, because it wasn’t a safe place for people to come,” she says. “We’d never close the emergency room, but it’s very hard to provide care there. [Patients and staff] should be in an environment where the air is clean.”

“If the air quality is bad outside and it’s also bad inside [the hospital], where are people supposed to go when they’re having trouble breathing?” she asks. “The people here deserve better.”

Kau Rep. Bob Herkes is a fierce advocate for the Big Island’s vog-ridden areas, and for this year’s legislative session he put together a package of several vog-related bills. The only one that passed was his request for a 40-foot mobile medical van, to be based out of Kona Community Hospital and serve south Kona, Kau and upper Puna. It will be paid for by federal Homeland Security grant money.

Herkes says, “I get really concerned with our approach to natural disasters.”

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Honolulu Magazine March 2020
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