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Dangerous gas is adding to concerns on Big Island

  • JAMM AQUINO/JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    National Guard soldiers and Big Island police man a roadblock on Highway 130 outside Leilani Estates on Friday. The volcanic eruption and potential health hazards resulted in the immediate evacuation of more than 1,500 Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivision residents as high levels of sulfur dioxide — particularly dangerous to seniors, young people and those with respiratory problems — were released into the atmosphere.

Hawaii island residents exposed to the high levels of dangerous gas detected in areas of volcanic activity are two times more likely to develop acute respiratory disease.

The volcanic eruption and potential health hazards resulted in the immediate evacuation of more than 1,500 Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivision residents as high levels of sulfur dioxide — particularly dangerous to seniors, young people and those with respiratory problems — were released into the atmosphere. A warning was issued early Friday morning by the Department of Defense Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

“The greatest worry is for people who have underlying lung disease like emphysema or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Those individuals are at the highest risk,” said state Sen. Josh Green (D, Kona-Kau), a Big Island emergency doctor.

Exposure to high levels of sulfur dioxide, a pungent gas released into the air from volcanic eruptions, can be life-threatening.

Symptoms include:
>> Burning and irritation to the nose, eyes, throat, skin and lungs.
>> Sore throat, runny noise and cough.
>> Difficulty breathing, swollen lungs and severe airway obstructions.
>> Headaches, sinus infection and bronchitis.
>> Particularly dangerous to asthmatics and people with underlying lung diseases like emphysema, a condition that causes damage to the lung air sacs, and COPD, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which obstructs airflow from the lungs.
>> Can cause children to develop problems as they age, including wheezing and other respiratory illnesses.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Emphysema is a condition that causes damage to the lung air sacs, while COPD obstructs airflow from the lungs.

“We haven’t experienced anything this potentially damaging in decades, so this is the time when we really have to pay attention to (state warnings),” he said, adding that people should stay out of the affected region, stay indoors or wear masks. “People with bad lungs can get much worse. At very high sulfur dioxide levels, it’s a risk for everyone.”

People exposed to sulfur dioxide also can experience higher rates of headaches, as well as irritation in the eyes, nose and throat. Common symptoms include sinus infections and upper respiratory infections like bronchitis.

There has not been a spike in hospital admissions or emergency room visits for respiratory problems at Hilo Medical Center or Kau Hospital, said spokeswoman Elena Cabatu.

Leilani Estates resident Julie Woolsey evacuated Thursday afternoon when lava began spewing from a vent roughly 600 feet from her home. After letting out her chickens, she evacuated with her 4-year-old grandson and three dogs.

“We’re trying to spend the night as far away as possible from that. When it started to get bad, I left the area because of the 4-year-old. He’s so precious, we don’t want to chance it,” she said.

The smoke turned into a funnel swirling around the area right before lava started coming up through the ground, Woolsey said.

“Then the air starts feeling really heavy,” giving her a headache and sore throat, she added. “We moved out of the area after that as quickly as we could.”

State Sen. Russell Ruderman (D, Puna-Kau), owner of Island Naturals Market Inc. in Pahoa, said the state is bringing in air monitors to be more exact on the areas of danger.

“They evacuated a fairly large area because of sulfur dioxide concerns. It can cause pulmonary damage and it can kill you,” he said. “If you’re pregnant or a baby, there’s also a need to be concerned. It’s one of the reasons we need to take these evacuations very seriously.”

Another major concern is the natural and chemical gases at Pahoa’s geothermal plant near the volcanic activity, he said.

Puna Geothermal Venture, which uses steam and hot liquid in underground wells to produce electricity, suspended power production and is closed until further notice. The plant mines wells with naturally occurring toxic hydrogen sulfide and uses other poisonous chemicals in the production process, he said.

“If any of its wells should fail, you’re going to have an uncontrolled release of a very poisonous gas,” Ruderman said. “They keep large quantities of hazardous chemicals. It could be really bad because it’s super poisonous and would be almost impossible to shut off. It could be a catastrophe.”

The Big Island’s Civil Defense Agency said Friday afternoon, “There is no activity at Puna Geothermal Venture at this time. PGV is secured.”


For more volcano coverage, visit 808ne.ws/2FIMk5c


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