Vog reaches ‘unhealthy’ levels in Kona

  • Chris Stewart via AP The sun sets through vog May 23 in Kailua-Kona.
  • Chris Stewart via AP

    The sun sets through vog May 23 in Kailua-Kona.

KAILUA-KONA — Hualalai was shrouded in vog Tuesday as air quality reached “unhealthy” levels for some West Hawaii residents.

According to the state Department of Health, Kona experienced a “red” air day Tuesday. Since the installation of the air quality monitor in Kona in 2009, health officials say this was the first time they’ve seen West Hawaii reach unhealthy levels.

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“Unhealthy” is defined as everyone possibly beginning to experience health effects and members of sensitive groups possibly experiencing more serious effects.

“I’ve always known Kona to be ‘yellow.’ When the eruptions started, it went ‘orange,’” said Lisa Young, environmental health specialist with the DOH’s Clean Air Branch.

Vog began to get heavy after the eruption of Kilauea volcano began in lower Puna on May 3.

While conditions have become hazardous in areas of Puna, the Ka‘u District also has been impacted by ashfall and West Hawaii continues to be bombarded with walls of vog.

Lacey Holland, post-doctoral fellow in University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences, said 2,500 tons of emissions were released into the atmosphere daily before this month’s volcanic activity.

Since May 3, Holland said 35,000-40,000 tons have been released. Concentrations drop down quickly away from its source.

“But here we’ve got like 15-20 times the amount of normal, so even though the concentrations do drop off really quickly when you’re away from the main area, there’s just a sheer number of vog-related molecules in the air — (it) still causes the air quality to be much worse,” Holland said.

Concentration fluctuation has to do with weather patterns.

“Small shift in wind direction or speed can cause very different outcomes whenever it comes to the concentrations of sulfur dioxide or sulfate aerosols that you see in the air,” Holland said.

There’s a chance of vog-related air making its way to Oahu.

“Right now, with the wind (direction) … it just is blowing the emissions from the lower East Rift Zone almost directly to Kona,” Holland said.

There are two types of particulate matter measured: PM2.5 and PM10, which relate to the size of the particles. Young said PM2.5 is haze or smoke, while PM10 is bigger particles such as ash or dust.

“There’s so much more emissions coming now than there has been before, now everyone can see when it accumulates,” Young said.

State Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-North Kona, said more needs to be done to inform the public about these “unhealthy” air days. She said conditions this past week have been severe and there are a lot of people feeling the effects who aren’t usually bothered by the vog.

“We deserve information from the county and the state Department of Health and to have our questions answered,” Lowen said.

She added that when air quality is in the “unhealthy” range, the public should be alerted.

“We don’t need to panic, but when you’re driving on the highway and you can’t see the ocean or the mountain, it’s pretty hard to keep pretending that the vog isn’t an issue,” Lowen said.

Young said the department is looking at sites to set up more particle sensors in Kona next week, as well as trying to figure out how it can alert the community when these poor air quality days occur.

West Hawaii Today reached out to the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency about why no alert was issued for the red air day in Kona. As of press time, no calls were returned.

While vog has hit an all-time level of discomfort these past few weeks, West Hawaii’s outdoor community continues to plan for its summer events, including the Ironman 70.3 Hawaii qualifier race this Saturday in South Kohala.

Greta Friesen, member of the board of directors of Hawaii Cycling Club, is competing. Since the lava flows started, she said she’s been playing it by ear as far as when she goes out to train.

“I’ve been down to every other day,” she said.

While training, Friesen said she will get a sore throat and when she pushes, her lungs burn.

Those who paddle at Kailua Pier also are watching the air quality but continue to train and plan for summer races.

Mike Atwood, athletic director of Kai ‘Opua Canoe Club, said coaches addressed the air quality about three weeks ago. If they were to see signs of discomfort from their paddlers, they were to take appropriate action.

“Some have shown relatively minor reaction, but it hasn’t discouraged them from their normal workouts,” Atwood said.

The King Kamehameha Day Regatta is June 9. Atwood said there have been concerns from people not from the island about the Lili‘uokalani race, the world’s largest long distance outrigger canoe race, which takes place Aug. 31-Sept. 4.

“We just tell them we’re monitoring it and working closely with the Department of Health and Civil Defense,” Atwood said.

He said the media exposure has had a negative impact on the island, adding these conditions have been around since the first people came to Hawaii.

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“Some of us are going to feel discomfort,” he said. “But for the most part, the human body is a resilient thing. The majority of us, whether we’re athletes or not, can go about our lifestyles.”

Email Tiffany DeMasters at tdemasters@westhawaiitoday.com.