The Wrath of Vog

Photo: David Croxford

It comes on the Kona winds—the dreaded yellow-brown haze of vog that makes eyes burn and lungs protest. On the Big Island, of course, it has done far more damage. How bad could it get? And what do we really know about vog and its effects?

Three-thousand, eight-hundred people lived on Miyakejima, a small island off Tokyo, until one day in September 2000, when the Japanese government ordered the island evacuated because of extreme volcanic activity. As directed, people delivered their pets to the port by 9:30 a.m., packed some belongings and a lunch and then boarded a city bus for the ship.

It was more than four years before they were allowed to return home.

The Island’s volcano had started erupting three months earlier. A month before the evacuations, the volcano had started emitting toxic sulfur dioxide (SO2)—the stuff of vog, and, in the case of Miyakejima, of corroded metal roofs, collapsed homes and extensive damage to forests, wild birds, sea life and farms. By November, the volcano was giving off 70,000 tonnes of SO2 per day. (A tonne is a metric unit equal to 1,000 kilograms, 2,304.6 pounds or 1.1 English tons.)

Even after residents were cleared to return home four-and-a-half years later, it was only under controlled circumstances: Residents who chose to return needed a medical clearance, a “safe room” in their house and had to carry a gas mask at all times.

Now that’s some serious vog.

Our Kilauea Volcano is currently tormenting the Big Island—and sometimes the other Hawaiian Islands—with what most residents consider really bad vog, but you might be surprised to read that it’s nothing compared to Miyakejima. Kilauea has been emitting 2,000 to 3,000 tonnes per day of SO2 from its two active vents since late 2008. At its peak last summer, it was giving off about 7,000 to 8,000 tonnes per day—only a tenth of what Miyakejima was doing at its worst.

Even so, Kilauea’s vog is driving just about everybody crazy, and has real health, environmental and economic impacts. Could it get worse? Could Kīlauea go Miyakejima on us? Could it get so bad that our government would force a mandatory evacuation?

Experts say the worst case scenario is possible, but unlikely. Short of that, vog is corroding our quality of life in some measurable ways. Here is a tally of what’s been happening and how people are coping with it.

Photo: Kirk Lee Aeder

Where Vog is Born

Kilauea Volcano is the only Big Island volcano currently active. Its name means “spewing,” or “much spreading,” and probably refers to its lava flows. Its cinder-and-spatter cone, called Puu Oo, has been erupting almost continuously since 1983. Slowly and steadily, over the years it’s wiped out a subdivision, almost the entire historic village of Kalapana, 202 structures, a visitor’s center, part of a highway, archaeological sites and more.

In March of last year, a vent exploded at Halemaumau Crater at Kīlauea’s summit, and there were more explosions there through October. These explosions produced sulfur dioxide gas emissions and ash reported as far away as Pahala (19 miles) and Ocean View (nearly 40 miles to the southwest).

Normally the trade winds, which blow from the northeast, send much of the SO2 from Puu Oo out to sea. The SO2 coming from Halemaumau, though, often lingers over downwind Kau communities, from Pahala to Ocean View. Both plumes eventually reach the west side of the island in a double-whammy that covers the Kona coast with a dense and almost constant haze of vog.
It’s when the usual trade winds die down and winds blow from the south, or are variable, that vog covers East Hawaii and also impacts the other Hawaiian islands.

From the Hawaii Volcano Observatory:

Vog (volcanic smog) is a visible haze comprised of gas and an aerosol of tiny particles and acidic droplets, created when sulfur dioxide (SO2) and other gases emitted from Kilauea Volcano chemically interact with sunlight and atmospheric oxygen, moisture and dust. Near Kilauea’s active vents, vog consists mostly of SO2 gas. Along the Kona coast on the west side of Hawaii Island and in other areas far from the volcano, vog is dominated by an aerosol of sulfuric acid and other sulfate compounds.

Margaret Barnaby, a Volcano-based artist who makes what she jokingly calls “vog-saturated” woodblock prints, closes up her house as soon as she notices bad air, she says, and “last summer we went out and bought gas masks. I know where mine is, sealed in a Ziploc bag so the filters stay clean, but I have yet to use it. We do drive places occasionally to get out of the stink. People seem more relaxed about it lately. I am, anyway.”


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.”


Effects on the Farms

It’s not only humans feeling it—plants get burned by vog, too, and it’s been devastating. “Agricultural losses are significant, ranches are suffering, the SO2 in the rain is deteriorating fences and gates,” Herkes says. “It’s impeding the growth of grass and there have been some stillborns [of ranch animals]. The honey people [are suffering, because] bees won’t fly in vog, so there’s no pollinating. And the cut flower people have really taken a beating.”

If the state is planning to evacuate anyone, it may be the farmers. Herkes says that the state may need to permanently relocate some of them away from the volcano so they can stay in business. “We did it on the Hilo Bayfront after the tsunamis of ’46 and ’60,” he said. “But people are reluctant to move. They are a little stunned at the idea, I think. If it goes on a little longer, they might start thinking about it, though.”

County extension agent Kelvin Sewake says that last year, from 14 or 15 farmers who returned a survey, he identified more than half-a-million dollars lost due to vog. “Today I’m sure it’s a lot more,” he says. “Quite a few farmers have gone out of business, moved away looking for jobs on the Mainland, are doing jobs other than farming, or have replaced their crops with other crops that do better in the vog.”

Last summer, the Hawaii Farm Bureau Federation requested, and received, an emergency declaration, which triggered federal aid. It came in the form of low-interest USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) emergency loans to cover losses caused by vog. Steve Bazzell, chief of the farm loan programs for the USDA FSA, says fewer than 10 farmers took them up on loans.

“Most that I’m aware of decided they didn’t want to go deeper into debt without knowing when the disaster would be over,” he says.

“It’s a strange kind of disaster,” he says. “One that has no end to it, so people just didn’t know what to do. And a lot of agencies didn’t know how to help. You don’t know how to deal with a disaster that just keeps on going.”

The state has also offered farmers low-cost loans, but Janelle Saneishi, state Department of Agriculture public information officer, says no one has applied. “I think the farmers are a little bit reserved about taking on more debt, because the vog continues and they’re probably going to have the same problem.” She says the state has postponed payments on farmers’ existing loans until they can somehow recover or get an alternate source of income.

Lester Ueda, who is Hawaii County executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency, says, “Nobody has a grip on the numbers [of farmers and ranchers affected by vog], but it’s significant. Vog breaks things down, adds chemicals in the air, takes out chemicals. Pretty much everything it touches it affects in some way, whether it’s right away or a year from now. Some people are only now seeing the effects. This is why we can’t come up with the numbers.”

His advice to farmers? Buy Non-Insured Crop Disaster Assistance insurance (NAP) through the FSA. None of the Big Island protea farmers, hardest hit by vog, had the crop insurance, which costs between $250 and $750. “They need to participate, because otherwise there is no other assistance. If they had had this NAP insurance, we would have made payment already. It doesn’t pay for everything, but it helps them start over.”

It’s not just farms and ranches that are impacted. Water-catchment systems become contaminated with acid rain and the water needs to be treated. Nearby residents report the vog corrodes the metal on their cars.

George Applegate, executive director of the Big Island Visitor’s Bureau, has a completely different take on the volcano. While tourism to Hawaii is down for economic reasons, he says it’s not due to the vog. He says he wanted to apply for vog-related disaster relief, but couldn’t find any numbers to support the application.

“People are not cancelling because of the vog,” he says. “They’re looking at the volcano in a positive light and absolutely streaming in to see it. No rain, no rainbows. I don’t know what I’d do if the volcano stopped erupting.”

Quince Mento, left, and Lester Ueda at the Hawaii County Civil Defense Center.

Photo: Kirk Lee Aeder

A Vog Evacuation?

Some good news—a full scale, Miyakejima-style evacuation of the Big Island seems unlikely, according to Kauahikaua. That island was threatened not only by vog, but by the possibility of violent eruptions. “Kīlauea has less viscous magma and it’s a different kind of volcano than Miyakejima,” he says. “It’s unlikely there will be any large explosions that would threaten the public, though it is always possible.”

Regarding the possibility of wide-scale, mandatory evacuations, Hawai‘i County Civil Defense director Quince Mento says, “It’s never happened in recent times. The most recently we’ve had discussions about [mandatory] evacuations was back in 1984, with the Mauna Loa eruption.” That’s when, for a tense three days, lava advanced toward Hilo, finally stopping just about four miles above the town.

What might such an evacuation look like? Says Mento, “I’m pretty sure we’d be forewarned that something might be occurring. We’d have to get an emergency declaration. And in terms of moving that amount of people, we’d need a lot of resources beyond what we have. Island, state, federal. It would probably just be the upper Puna areas, Ka‘u—we’d have to relocate them to Hāmākua, Puna. We’d have to set up relocation centers.”

Early on, Hawai‘i County Civil Defense did call for voluntary evaluations when gas levels in the air became unsafe. “Every time we’ve tried to be predictive,” admits Mento, “we’ve failed substantially. We did three [voluntary] evacuations based upon predictive levels and all we did was really scare the community.”

It takes a lot of logistics, he says, to evacuate a community. “You’ve got to find out where’s safe, create a facility, staff it,” he says. “There are a lot of steps to get everything in a row. By the time we make it happen, [the vog] all blows away.”

Ueda, of the Farm Service Agency, compares the whole vog situation to something he heard the late actress Farrah Fawcett say. 
“I heard a news report where she had said that there are no rules for cancer; that it makes its own rules. That’s kind of what we’re dealing with, with this vog.

“It’s kind of scary because we don’t know what it’s doing. It does what it does, and goes where it goes, and we don’t know if we’re going to see more effects in the future, or less effects. It’s unpredictable.

“Farmers are trying different methods but there’s no cure,” he says. “There’s no answer. People say, ‘What do you mean there’s no answer?’ but I think that’s the truth.”

Leslie Lang is a Big Island writer who lives, writes and breathes in Hamakua, which is generally (but not always) vog-free.