Edit ModuleShow Tags

The New Reality of Vog and What We Can Do About It

With the recent unprecedented volcanic emissions, the Environmental Protection Agency has stepped in on the Big Island with measures appropriate for a major toxic event. If it’s that serious there, what’s in store for O‘ahu? We take a deep breath and examine the new reality of vog—and what we can do about it.


Published:

Diamond Head in Vog

Photo: David Croxford

 

It started with a scratchy throat. When Nina Gordon moved with her husband and Simon, their 5-year-old, from Massachusetts to Hawai‘i Kai, she says, “[Simon] was just throat clearing all the time and saying his skin was itchy, itchy.” A visit to a pediatrician and an allergist—the latter requiring a two-month wait—flagged a lone irritant: cat dander. They didn’t have a cat.

 

By then, Gordon says, “we’d put him on Claritin and other over-the-counter drugs to see if that helped. We’d run the air conditioning continuously,” which frustrated Gordon, who majored in environmental science and taught science. “It’s not sustainable.”

 

It was upon finally mentioning his symptoms to his teacher that she first heard about vog. When she described them to neighbors, they replied: “That sounds just like me!”—and blamed vog.

 

For Gordon, that wasn’t enough. The scientist in her required proof. But, “whenever someone would say the vog is really bad, I would check the air quality level and it was always good.”

 

Ten months after moving here, Gordon says, “my son has had upper respiratory issues the entire time we’ve been here. We were giving him oatmeal baths for his skin irritation because he was scratching himself bloody. So I don’t know. And it’s important for me as a layperson to know and as a parent it’s absolutely driving me crazy. I just feel I don’t know enough.”

 

Gordon isn’t alone. Many of O‘ahu’s more than 990,000 people are also feeling, or thinking they feel, the effects of vog here at home. They are also wondering: Is anybody listening? Because, while the Kīlauea eruptions have rightfully received the lion’s share of attention—including the June 4 launch by the EPA of a 35-monitor air-quality system to provide vog information to the Big Island’s 200,000 residents, followed by the state’s June 13 decision to place 10 new monitors of its own there—O‘ahu has seen a sharp increase in respiratory complaints and hospital and ER admissions, too, going back to 2008.

 

Volcano

Since May 3 , the current eruption has been typically sending 10,000 to 40,000 tons of sulfur dioxide a day into the atmosphere, where it converts into the aerosolized particulates known as vog. The previous average before May 3: 1,500 to 2,500 tons per day.
PHOTO: DAVID CROXFORD

 

Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee

To some a blight on paradise, to others merely a blip, vog first crept into Island consciousness on little cat feet—after 1986 in modern memory, when Kīlauea’s sputtering, still-young eruption changed from fountains of lava to vents that belched much more sulfur dioxide, or SO2.

 

Vog’s main ingredient, sulfur dioxide is a toxic gas present in automobile emissions, petroleum refining and other industrial processes; it’s also used in fertilizer and in winemaking (to slow fermentation) and as a preservative, notably in dried fruit. In normal life, it’s not easy to inhale pure SO2, but if you stick your face into a jetting vent or busted factory pipe, it can kill you—which is why the Big Island regularly ranked as the worst in air quality in the U.S. for particulate pollution even before the recent eruptions.

 

What makes sulfur dioxide harmful to those of us on other islands is its transformation into an aerosol particle, which scientists call vog—a mashup of “volcano” and “smog,” just as smog was an 1880s neologism of “smoke” and “fog” used to describe London’s nasty urban mix. “When SO2 comes out of the vent, it’s vog,” says Steven Businger, who leads the vog forecasting group at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. “In clear air, SO2 converts to SO4, sulfate aerosol.” The SO4 ion picks up oxygen and water molecules, plus volcanic byproducts; the resulting particle floats along like our more familiar aerosols: air freshener, hairspray and those mustard gas bombs in Syria.

 

Vog’s tiny particles—under 2.5 microns—are its killer app. “The smaller the particle, the longer it hangs in the air,” says Businger, who’s also chair and professor of atmospheric science at UH’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. Vog is able to travel long distances, all the way to O‘ahu, Kaua‘i and, in our new eruption, to Guam and the Marianas. The longer it hovers in the air the more likely it will find its way into your lungs.

 

But that’s not the only thing. “If it’s cloudy or humid outside,” Businger explains, “the conversion happens at a very rapid rate, and when the cloud evaporates it produces acid rain,” something that gained notice in the 1970s after  SO4’s burning and harmful effects were noted on forests, crops and bodies of water in the Northeast and Canada. Amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1991 eventually reduced sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-burning power plants and lowered acid rain levels by 65 percent.

 

Here in Hawai‘i, droplets of acid rain burn and kill plants, including lettuces and greens, flowers and, in the current eruption, more than 50 percent of Big Island papaya trees so far. When it collects on metal, such as fences and water catchment tanks, it corrodes. And when human beings absorb it through their mouths, throats, lungs and eyes, it can irritate, burn and trigger allergic reactions including constriction of the airways.

 

Finally, vog takes its sweet time in going away. “It does settle eventually, but the lighter the wind, the more pollution concentration you’re going to get,” says Businger.

 

Smoke

PHOTO: DAVID CROXFORD

 

What Happens on the Big Island

Vog on occasion does generate one positive: spectacular sunsets. On Hawai‘i Island it also sprang a happy surprise for coffee growers Phil and Merle Becker of Aikane Plantation Coffee Co. “The 2008 eruption killed off our protea crop and our coffee trees,” says Phil Becker, who also lost his prized ’62 Corvette to corrosion. “But a year later the coffee bushes came back just fine, and without needing any fertilizer.” Turns out SO2 reabsorbed into the soil feeds some crops.

 

Otherwise, vog is bad news. Recent live broadcasts and air quality red alerts have provided plenty of dramatic examples of vog’s effects on the Big Island, including a run on N95 gas masks and shelters full of people complaining of headaches and respiratory issues. But for sheer impact it’s hard to beat an overlooked incident that occurred Feb. 1, more than three months before the new eruptions. A popular lava tour guide, 51-year-old Sean King, was leading three tourists at the Kalapana lookout, just outside Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park, when a downpour struck. Raindrops striking hot lava created a white cloud of scalding steam. King fell. Choking, the tourists fled then hiked for hours before regaining cell coverage to call for help; in their early 20s, they were treated for minor injuries. (King’s death was classified as an unattended death awaiting autopsy results and cause of death.)

 

Another superheated gas event you may recall from your history books—or a visit to the Big Island—came in an eruption that changed Hawaiian history: Kīlauea’s November 1790 blast and gas cloud. It halted an attack by Keōua Kū‘ahu‘ula on Kamehameha I, killing an estimated 400 warriors, some of whom left their footprints preserved in hardened ash.

 

These fatal events aren’t what we experience when we step out into a windless, humid day. The farther vog gets from a spewing vent, the less dramatic and more elusive—you could almost say insidious—it gets. Although often accompanied by haze, vog also can be invisible, casting doubt on what it is and whether it’s the cause of that cough, that raspy throat, those burning eyes.

 

Adding to the uncertainty, vog has also been consistently underplayed by the state Health Department and, except during eruptions, by Hawai‘i media. On May 25, for instance, as SO2 emissions reached new and unprecedented heights, the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority sent out a press release highlighting this quote from Virginia Pressler, the departing health director: “The air quality for the vast majority of the Hawaiian Islands is clean and healthy. The emissions from Kīlauea volcano are a nonfactor for O‘ahu, Maui, Moloka‘i, Lāna‘i and Kaua‘i. The weather is beautiful and warm with cooling tradewinds everywhere and is exactly what travelers expect when coming here for a relaxing and fun vacation experience. This includes Hilo, Pāhoa, and the Kona and Kohala coasts on the island of Hawai‘i.”

 

As Captain Picard of the USS Enterprise might have added: “Make it so.”

 

And why not? After all, Kīlauea is 212 miles from O‘ahu. Our island chain is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with few heavy industries and therefore, in the minds of many, not supposed to have pollution. With strong tradewinds blowing two-thirds of the year, how could it be otherwise? The airnow.gov site that is relied on by the news media, and is reprinted in the newspaper every day, seems proof that our weather is always good. Measured. Certified. As weatherman Guy Hagi likes to say: “Best weather on the planet.”

 

For years the Health Department, the governor’s office, the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority and various organization spokespersons have all claimed to have scientific studies on their side. You think that’s vog you’re feeling? Maybe you’re allergic to cats, dogs, mold and cockroaches.

 

“What irks me is the way our local government is downplaying the exposure,” says O‘ahu allergist Dr. Jeffrey Kam, who’s been at Straub Medical Center for more than 20 years. “And I don’t care what Guy Hagi says,” he adds, speaking two days after the EPA launched its monitoring array and website for the Big Island. “Ten years ago, we had two to three weeks straight of chronic vog. What’s happening more recently is that vog here is more prolonged and more frequent. The last three weeks, the weather dudes have been saying the wind is blowing away from us. I appreciate their work, but in that time I’ve had a 25 percent increase in people coming in with symptoms.”

 

That’s on top of a 30 percent increase in allergy and pulmonary complaints from his patients since 2008.

 

In fact, the vog problem is complex and the science, as we will see, is tricky. O‘ahu residents can be forgiven for thinking that vog wasn’t anything to worry about, or to blame, because there is no data from our five air quality measurement stations to support the case. Without data—verified hazardous particulate levels on O‘ahu—the state’s and the official scientific line is defensible:

 

What happens on the Big Island, stays on the Big Island.

 

Lava in the trees

PHOTO: DAVID CROXFORD

“I could hardly go outside. I was taking Claritin every day, Tylenol every day, but I hadn’t found anything that was working. The headaches were incredible. It was a shock how bad they could get.” — Justine Perkins

 

More Emissions, More Problems?

Science wasn’t an issue for Justine Perkins, who’d lived in Hawai‘i all but four years of her life. To her, vog was clearly the culprit. A few years after she got back from college in 2003, she realized she and her family were getting the same symptoms every time the winds died and the haze moved in on her Pearl City neighborhood. “Then we sneeze a lot and have headaches and irritability and fatigue,” says the Kamehameha Schools graduate and mother of two.

 

But in the past few years it got worse. “I could hardly go outside,” she says. “I was taking Claritin every day, Tylenol every day, but I hadn’t found anything that was working. The headaches were incredible. It was a shock how bad they could get; I couldn’t believe it.”

 

When her children, Kallen, 5, and Xiomara, 7, were affected, she started giving them Claritin, too, as prescribed by their pediatrician. But Perkins didn’t like the idea. “I’m not a pill person but I wanted them to go outdoors, to be healthy, not in the house playing on the tablet all the time.” And so she has turned increasingly to alternative medicine (see page 115).

 

Perkins is one of many vog sufferers on O‘ahu who say their health has gotten worse since the eruption of 2008. The additional volcanic activity led to a fivefold increase in SO2 emissions—from about 2,000 tons a day to 10,000 tons, before tapering off again—and complaints during the smoky, hazy weeks that Dr. Kam recalls left Honolulu looking like Los Angeles in 1960, before automobile emissions standards. They also left many people feeling terrible. “That’s when it really changed for me in terms of dealing with it,” he says. “When there’s vog for shorter periods, people do better. But after two or three weeks, they don’t have the reserves. If they have allergies and asthma, they start crashing and burning.”

 

The timing of the 2008 eruptions—which were declared a national agricultural disaster after killing off crops that included protea and damaging coffee plantations on the Big Island—was lucky in one respect: An experienced researcher, Bernadette Longo, was already in place and doing studies. A former nurse working on a doctorate in public health at Oregon State, Longo first came to the Big Island in 2003 when her husband, visiting there as a volcanologist, called her back at home. “‘Bernie, you have to see this!’” she remembers him saying.

 

Her first thought on arriving at Kīlauea: “What is all this air pollution doing to these people? Then I got back to Oregon State and saw that no work had been done, that the research was really minimal.” Today the research landscape looks very different thanks to Longo, who became a professor at the University of Nevada-Reno and authored 15 papers and studies on vog over 15 years.

 

Longo did the first regional downwind air assessment in 2003. To find out how much vog was penetrating indoors, she says she organized the first indoor/outdoor air quality assessments at Big Island hospitals and schools. “The schools reacted very quickly,” Longo says. “That was turned over to the state and they were able to get a protocol for high-vog events: We’re going to close the doors, get air conditioners in classrooms.”

 

From talking to the Fire Department, she realized there was no plan in place for the homebound on high-vog days. So she helped to create one. “Now that’s standard in disaster planning; the fire departments already have a list of people and their addresses and a plan for those populations.”

 

The impetus for these innovations, of course, was the evidence of vog’s effects on the Big Island population: increased cough, phlegm, sore/dry throat, sinus congestion, wheezing, eye irritation, bronchitis, faster resting pulse rates and higher blood pressure in those under 25; higher risk of acute bronchitis among children 0–14 and women 45–64 living in communities continuously exposed to sulfurous volcanic air pollution; acute airway problems, headache and asthma exacerbations during the higher 2008–2009 increased emissions; and higher rates of respiratory illness on vog days along with visits to clinics with bronchitis and pharyngitis one to three days after exposure.

 

The sum of Longo’s march of papers and studies: “Vog is real,” she says. “It’s very real. It’s not good, for all of us.”

 

Justine Perkins

Justine Perkins and her two children, Xiomara (left) and Kallen, suffer from vog-related symptoms, making them reluctant to go outside.
photo: aaron k. yoshino

 

Who Cares About the Canaries?

Valuable as they were to the Kīlauea community, Longo’s papers on the Big Island were short-term studies and measured short-term effects. To say aerosolized sulfur dioxide traveled to O‘ahu and caused harm was speculative.

 

That’s all it could be. No one was seriously measuring it anywhere else.

 

For one thing, it would be difficult because, says Dr. Elizabeth Tam, professor and chair of medicine at UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine, “Honolulu air can get so contaminated by other stuff, it would be very difficult to study vog specifically in Honolulu.”

 

The man-made stuff isn’t inconsiderable, it turns out.

 

“Yes, we have a volcano, it’s spewing out a lot, but O‘ahu actually generates a lot of SO2 itself from those little four-wheel volcanoes,” says Tam. In addition to an oversupply of automobiles, O‘ahu also has its coal-fired AES power plant on the West Side, which is the state’s second-leading single source of toxic pollutants, along with two oil-burning plants.

 

Tam is also the American Lung Association of Hawai‘i and Lē‘ahi Fund Endowed Chair in Respiratory Health. And she questions vog’s impact on O‘ahu. Vog needs three things to accumulate in Honolulu, she says: “If, one, the inversion layer descended from a mile high; two, a bunch of vog got blown south of Honolulu; and then three, winds from the south carried the vog back to Honolulu. It does happen, but less often than people think.”

 

Her opinion carries weight because she did the first, and so far only, peer-reviewed long-term study of vog with human subjects, published in Environment International in 2016. From 2002 to 2005, almost 2,000 fourth- and fifth-graders at 25 Big Island schools were chosen in four separate exposure zones: Low, Intermittent, Frequent and Acid. Then they were tested for “lung health, respiratory symptoms and asthma prevalence.”

 

Her findings may sound understated but carry the imprimatur of her conscientious research: “Multivariable analysis showed … chronic exposure to acid vog is associated with increased cough and possibly with reduced FEV1/FVC”—a sign of airway disease—“but not with asthma or bronchitis.”

 

Dr. Elizabeth Tam

DR. ELIZABETH TAM
PHOTO: COURTESY OF UH JOHN A. BURNS SCHOOL OF MEDICINE

 

In an emotionally contested space in which outside considerations come into play, including catchy headlines and maximizing visitor counts, those findings have been interpreted by some as a silver lining. As the current eruption intensified on May 21, for example, the Star-Advertiser’s page one story, “Air Scare,” included input from both Longo and Tam but concluded that “Tam’s study was encouraging.”

 

Yes, it was a relief in the sense that children in the study did not seem to develop chronic respiratory illness from exposure to vog. But what about those with pre-existing respiratory conditions? Among the caveats disclosed in Tam’s study was a very high rate of physician-diagnosed asthma (20 percent) among local children (compared to a national 8.3 percent rate). “They had a worse response to vog,” she says. “If you already have asthma, it is an irritant, and if you have symptoms it will worsen.”

 

So, for children as well as adults with respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, the news was not, actually, encouraging.

 

In August 2017, a study that looks like vog’s smoking gun for O‘ahu was published by UHERO, the University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization. Comparing local emergency room costs affected by Kīlauea emissions in nine ZIP codes, including on O‘ahu, Maui and Kaua‘i, the paper by Timothy J. Halliday, John Lynham and Aureo de Paula appeared in The Economic Journal of the Royal Economic Society. It found a 23 to 36 percent increase in expenditures on ER visits for pulmonary outcomes during vog events. “It is important to emphasize that we found effects for everybody, not just young children,” Halliday says.

 

Since May 4, the current eruption has been typically sending more than 10,000 tons of SO2 a day into the atmosphere. But sometimes, as reported on May 30, the level has reached an all-time high: 40,000 tons a day. The previous high was when the 1983 eruptions began: 30,000 tons per day in a single four-day period.

 

Early on in the recent eruption, the EPA quietly launched an intervention, as it would after any major chemical release. First installing a handful of monitors, the agency took readings and then ramped up its efforts, ringing the Big Island with 35 monitors and coordinating data with the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Hawai‘i and other groups, including the state Health Department.

 

The effort reflected the appropriate response to a toxic disaster of proportions never experienced in the U.S.—indeed, unimaginable if man-made. Kīlauea’s eruption is the equivalent of a major industrial accident occurring every single day of the year. On June 4, the EPA launched its live monitoring feed on a new interagency vog website, epa.gov/kilaueaairdata, only nine days after the HTA/DOH press release extolling our “clean and healthy” air.

 

That’s what irks front-line providers like Straub’s Dr. Kam. “The bottom line is my people are much more sensitive,” says Kam. “They’re like the canaries in the coal mine.”

 

Bernadette Longo

Dr. Bernadette Longo, in the field on the Big Island
photo: courtesy of bernadette longo

 

Airborne Emergencies

If the situation feels like hair-splitting and just a little surreal, it should because the dangerous nature of vog’s main component, sulfur dioxide, is not just well known—it’s notorious.

 

In 1948, SO2 emissions from a steel and zinc mill concentrated over the town of Donora, Pennsylvania; during the third and fourth days of the episode, out of 20,000 residents, 20 died and 7,000 were made ill. In 1952 in London, a pea-soup fog turned poisonous with sulfur dioxide from a nation that still burned coal. An estimated 4,000 to 6,000 people died in four days thanks to windless conditions and a cold front anticyclone—the same as in Donora—that held the yellowish cloud in place.

 

In 2016 in coal-fired China, 70 cities issued warnings that air quality had reached dangerous proportions, requiring the shutdown of traffic and certain industries. China’s Air Pollution Prevention and Control Action Plan puts the blame squarely on SO2, ozone (the main ingredient of smog) and particulates such as burnt rubber from tires. Particle pollution was blamed for an estimated 1.3 million deaths in China in 2013.

 

As in London and China and Donora, Hawai‘i’s weather is the other half of the vog equation. When the tradewinds blow out to sea, the operating assumption is there’s little to fear. When they stall—usually November through April, but lately any time—vog rolls in. How often? In a 2017 paper by Kristine Tofte and UH Mānoa atmospheric sciences professors Gary Barnes and Pao-shin Chu, Hawai‘i’s state climatologist, 101 vog days were counted, made up of 57 events that lasted anywhere from three hours to four days. “The majority fall on one or two days,” Chu says.

 

The worst vog in the study came from what is called a pre-cold front, similar to what occurred in Donora and London. “Usually this type of event occurs in wintertime on O‘ahu, before a cold front approaches,” Chu says. “We selected one case to study, a long duration prefrontal event that lasted for four days. This one caused the most pollutants for us. The value was almost three times higher than the minimal EPA standards. Also, the duration was long.”

 

Chu’s study found some complex wind and landscape interactions. “When we do models to simulate the trajectory and also the concentration of vog, we see very clearly the emissions get trapped in a vortex around the Islands, leaving from the vent, then going back.”

 

Worsening the effects, our island topography of steep central mountains and deep valleys forms troughs and basins to capture and hold it—again, very similar to the town of Donora. On top, the still, humid air tends to form a boundary layer, trapping vog as well as all of our other man-made pollution. “It’s a really major issue, particularly for the senior citizen,” says Chu.

 

Vog also mixes with smog. “You can see how much of this is originating from urban areas every day,” says Dr. Tam, by visiting a Nullschool satellite forecast site. Indeed, man-made air pollution is on the rise in Hawai‘i, up 12 percent in 2013 from the previous year, according to the EPA, led by emissions from power companies, fuel industries and the military. Every time the price of gas falls, it rises even more.

 

“But,” Tam adds, “another thing not included in the newspaper’s air quality report are the Burkhardt filters alongside our air monitoring stations. Basically, they capture pollens and spores. At 10 microns, they’re bigger than vog particles”—which are about 2.5 microns—“so don’t tend to travel as far. But whenever humidity goes up, the molds release. It’s quite striking.”

 

The upshot is a trifecta of bad things: “In Kona weather you get smog, vog and spore release. So many things are definitely happening to your eyes, nose and throat, and your lungs. But we can’t put it all on the volcano,” Tam says.

 

But that’s not all. Our tradewinds have been letting us down. In the last 37 years, they’ve gone from 291 days a year (as measured at the Honolulu airport) to 210, according to a landmark climate change paper by state climatologist Chu. That’s potentially 81 more vog days a year since 1972.

 

Indeed, since the EPA site debuted June 4, TV weather presenters have screened the Nullschool projection and paid more attention to distinguishing between upper-level and lower-level wind patterns, which can occasionally move vog toward O‘ahu against the trade flow. “People are also talking about dust coming over from China on the upper-level winds,” says Chu, something Kam says he’s discussed with meteorologists.

 

In a final knock against the “no vog problem” party line, the official EPA air quality reports we’ve seen on television and in the newspaper are next to no help in Hawai‘i because the standards are set too high for our unique emissions mixture. “The vog thresholds are set by the EPA,” says Businger. “These do not take into account allergic reactions that some folks have to vog. That may seem unfair, but the EPA set up the thresholds for industries that pollute and they didn’t want to shut down a plant every time someone has an allergic reaction, I expect.”

 

In other words, nobody expected a volcano to crash the party.

 

What to do in a vog event 1

What to do in a vog event 2

 

What Can We Do?

Nina Gordon never found relief. As her husband wraps up his sabbatical, she says she’s resigned to treating their year in Hawai‘i as an experiment on vog exposure. “I’ll be really interested to see if he (her son, Simon) continues to have these same symptoms back in Western Massachusetts.”

 

But for the rest of us, who live with long-term exposure, what can be done? For individuals, limiting exposure is the bottom line, along with following a list of strategies for the affected populations and their caregivers. Closing windows, sleeping and living with HEPA air filters, hunkering down in air-conditioned sanctuary rooms and limiting outdoor exercise isn’t pleasant or what we think of as Hawai‘i, but it’s going to be a seasonal fact of life for many, especially school-age children. “Most allergists and most pulmonary specialists in the state are in tune with this,” says Dr. Kam. “I highly recommend air filters.”

 

Even as we adopt coping strategies, a solution may be as elusive as vog itself. After all, there’s not much we can do about the volcano itself. Kīlauea is a force of nature. Do we launch a massive Twitter-shaming campaign against Pele? Hashtag: #MeSO2Too?

 

More profitably, instead of attacking the volcano, we can tackle the pollution we create ourselves—particularly our four-wheeled volcanoes. There’s even a precedent.

 

In Los Angeles in 1942, a siege of pollution led to a wave of medical complaints and a frantic search for an offender. One was found—a rubber plant—and promptly closed down. When the smog curtain descended again, the leaders of government and business didn’t wait around. Instead, they began to methodically limit emissions, industry by industry, despite being in the middle of a world war.

 

Postwar, smog returned with prosperity. On what was soon dubbed Black Friday—Sept. 13, 1946—an inversion similar to Donora’s reduced visibility to three blocks and sickened thousands. This time the city and county of LA, and its satellite cities, passed law after law regulating polluting industries. Why? Because they cared about their citizens, yes, but even more because they feared for LA’s brand of sunshine and a healthy climate.

 

SEE ALSO: Here’s How You Can Prepare for Heavy Vog From Kīlauea Volcano

 

Early ordinances in LA would lead to the first national Air Pollution Control Act in 1955, allocating funds for federal research, which led to the Clean Air Act of 1963, which built on California’s air standards law. These were enacted despite smog remaining a moving target, and disputed scientifically, for another 20 years. Because the state didn’t wait, millions of Californians, and eventually Americans, have breathed cleaner air for decades.

 

Here in Hawai‘i, we have a template of our own: the 2008 Hawai‘i Clean Energy Initiative, which made the state the first to commit to 100 percent clean energy. “Our aim to make Hawai‘i fossil fuel independent is going to help,” says Dr. Tam. “We’re 2,500 miles out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The atmosphere here should be perfect.” While a 2015 goal of getting there by 2045 was greeted with skepticism in many quarters, it’s looking like common sense with vog raising health care costs and making many, including tourists, miserable.

 

When California’s brand of sunshine and healthy living was at stake, the will to change was summoned. Today it looks like it’s Hawai‘i’s turn. Maybe when everybody breathes the same bad air, going solar and adopting electric vehicles will no longer seem like a solution for elites. Maybe we won’t wait 10, 20 and 30 years for more studies that haven’t even been started.

 

To Businger, “the motivation to clean up our factories and our automobiles is the very real and very large threat of climate change. If people can’t see that, they have their heads in the sand.”

 

Child

PHOTO: AARON K. YOSHINO

 

Desperate Measures

Nothing breeds panic like not being able to breathe. “Given the 40,000 tons of whatever coming through, people with asthma and allergies need to think about upscaling their medications,” says Dr. Jeffrey Kam, an allergist at Straub Medical Center. “It’s time to pop in and see your physician.”

 

Unable to sit by while her children coughed and complained of sore throats, burning eyes and shortness of breath, Pearl City resident Justine Perkins had started giving them Claritin at her pediatrician’s suggestion when they turned 3 and 5. When an aunt suggested she try an essential oil instead, Perkins needed no extra encouragement. “She gave me a couple of samples to try on myself,” she says. “I wanted to be the guinea pig. They really did work, to the point that I didn’t need the Claritin.”

 

Now, she says, “we diffuse”—putting two to three drops of oil in a nebulizer. And the children rely on a breathing stick, “similar to a Vick’s VapoRub, which they can actually put on themselves when they need it. It’s like a menthol, clears out the nasal passages. The relief is almost instant.”

 

The essential oils in question typically contain oils such as lemon, lavender, peppermint, coconut, jojoba and others. Though scientifically unproven, they’ve given Perkins a modicum of control—and, she believes, relief (along with Claritin on bad days). As Dr. Elizabeth Tam, chair of the UH medical school, says, “the placebo effect can be very real.”

 

READ MORE STORIES BY DON WALLACE

 

 

Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Subscribe to Honolulu

Honolulu Magazine October 2018
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Trending

 

41 Thoughts We Had While Watching the New “Magnum P.I.”

Magnum PI

Only one mentions Jay Hernandez's shirt.

 

20 Great O‘ahu Hikes

20 Great Hikes

20 great adventures that offer beautiful vistas, waterfalls, steep climbs and relics of the past.

 

16 Fascinating Facts About Sharks in Hawai‘i Every Local Should Know

Sharks

Important facts you may not know about sharks in Hawai‘i.

 

50 Greatest Songs of Hawai‘i

50 Greatest Songs

An esteemed panel of musicologists, producers and artists select the greatest hits in Hawai‘i’s music history.

 

Political Survivor

Mazie Hirono

A Closer Look at Hawaiʻi’s First Female Senator, Mazie Hirono.

Edit ModuleShow Tags