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Kīlauea Eruption May Cause Decline in Air Quality

December 22, 2020, 3:39 PM HST
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A thick, dense plume of SO2 and other volcanic gases billows from the lava fountains at fissure 8 on June 19, 2018. SO2 emission rates during the 2018 eruption of Kīlauea were so high that they required a new data analysis technique. USGS photo by P. Nadeau.

Sunday’s eruption at Kīlauea Volcano has caused potential concern about air quality across the Big Island.

The eruption began on the evening of Dec. 20 from the Halema‘uma‘u crater at the volcano’s summit. As of Tuesday, all eruptive activity is within Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park. However, vog conditions and sulfur dioxide (SO₂) air levels may increase and fluctuate in various areas of the island and the state.

Areas downwind of the summit such as Pahala and Ocean View have experienced increased levels of SO₂ that can cause problems with respiratory health, especially in sensitive individuals. Conditions are changing rapidly, and poor air quality causing health effects may be highly localized.

Hawai‘i residents and visitors are advised to be prepared and aware of the surrounding conditions, and how they feel or may react to vog in the air. In the event of voggy conditions, the following precautionary measures are advised:

  • Reduce outdoor activities that cause heavy breathing. Avoiding outdoor activity and exercise during vog conditions can reduce exposure and minimize health risks. This is especially important for sensitive groups such as children, the elderly, and individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions including asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, and chronic lung and heart disease.
  • Stay indoors and close windows and doors. If an air conditioner is used, set it to recirculate.
  • If you need to move out of an impacted area, turn on the car’s air conditioner and set it to recirculate.
  • Always keep medications on hand and readily available.
  • Daily prescribed medications should be taken on schedule and may provide protection from the effects of sulfur dioxide.
  • Remember that face coverings and masks used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 do not provide protection from SO₂ or vog.
  • Contact a doctor as soon as possible if any health problems develop.
  • Do not smoke and avoid second-hand smoke.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
  • Have family emergency plans prepared and ready.
  • Heed warnings by county and state emergency management officials.

Visitors to the Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park should note that rockfalls and explosions can produce ash composed of volcanic glass and rock fragments. These ash falls currently represent a minor hazard, but dustings of ash at areas around the Kīlauea summit are possible.

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The Hawai‘i Department of Health (DOH) is encouraging residents and visitors to utilize the following resources that provide complete, clear, and current information on the health effects of vog, how to protect yourself, vog and wind forecasts, air quality, changing conditions, and advice for visitors:

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