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Hawaii: Year-Long Allergy Season Due to 'Vog'

By Jenna Abate, Staff Writer
March 29, 2014; 4:23 AM ET
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Medical officials in Hawaii are seeing an influx of patients complaining of year-round allergies with no relief in sight. Many of the cases share a cause-and-effect relationship with Hawaii's tourism deterrent, volcanic smog, which is also known as "vog" for short.

"It comes and goes in pulses; it's been this way for the past 10 years when new vents opened up at Kilauea. About eight years ago the summit began to erupt, and the emission of gasses started to increase," Kevin Johnson, Research Professor at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa said.

Kilauea is located on The Big Island and is one of Hawaii's most active volcanoes in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

The Governor of Hawaii, Neil Abercrombie, has listed a series of Q&A's under Hawaii's Emergency Information section of the state government website concerning vog. What has recently plagued Hawaii's skies also puts people at risk for certain health conditions. The website contains a list of symptoms that mirror that of seasonal allergies, such as runny nose and difficulty breathing.

Map showing the Island of Hawai'i with the relative locations of the vents, along with Volcano village, and the towns of Hilo and Kailua-Kona. (Photo/Steven Businger, University of Hawaii at Mānoa)

Hawaiians are suffering and the high gas levels even led the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to close several days last month, forcing the evacuation of tourists. Sulfur dioxide (SO2), a pollutant that is emitted from volcanoes, is the main culprit that is causing these year-long allergies and frequent evacuations.

"Sulfur, which reacts with atmospheric sunlight, oxygen, water and tiny dust particles to form a bunch of sulfate aerosols, sulfuric acid and other compounds that generate this 'volcanic smog' in certain areas of the islands which do not experience strong trade winds at certain times of the year in particular," Thomas Shea of the University of Hawai'i's PhD Reaserch Faculty said.

Tourists Kristen Haggerty, left, and her mother, Jenny Haggerty, cover their mouths against noxious fumes from the Kilauea Volcano eruption, July 27, 2002. (AP Photo/David Briscoe, File)

The University of Hawai'i has even gone as far as to spearheading a Vog Measurement and Prediction Project (VMAP). Locals can visit this website daily and check current conditions on daily volcanic emissions and check the air quality in their area.

Vog is primarily a mixture of sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas and sulfate (SO4) aerosol. SO2 is expected to be the main problem in areas near the vents and on the Big Island. Farther north and west, SO4 aerosol is carried by kona winds (south and southeast winds) to other parts of the island chain, Steven Businger, VMAP director said.

Vog model layer-averaged (from 3,000 to 5,000 m) SO4 concentration. Photo/Steven Businger, University of Hawaii at Mā noa)

The combination of SO2 and water vapor in the air is one that Hawaiians are feeling in their sinuses.

"The water vapor combined with sulfuric acid is what the locals are feeling in their throats, on their skin, and affecting their mucus membranes. I don't even have seasonal allergies, but I do respond to vog. When it's in the air, I experience frequent headaches and congestion," Johnson said.

The gray-white haze has hovered over parts of the Big Island for weeks, particularly those areas downwind of the caldera of Kilauea. The wind has blown vog to Oahu, some 200 miles to the north, bathing Honolulu in a light haze, Johnson said.

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Oahu local, Gloria Wachter, said the vog comes and goes in her area as well, but if you're a sufferer of seasonal allergies, then vog-related side effects will find you.

"I already have upper respiratory issues and so when I see that it's going to be a 'grey day' I prepare myself to expect difficulty breathing," Wachter said.

Wachter said when Oahu experiences the odorless, heavy, grey vog, typical seasonal allergies intensify.

"The vog multiplies your symptoms times three, so if you have asthma your more prone to have an asthma attack. I'm prone to headaches but when there is vog, I often get migraines," Wachter said.

On top of the year-round allergies, Johnson said, "On a clear day I can usually look out and see Waikiki [beach on Honolulu, on the south shore of Oahu] but when vog sets in, I lose my view," Johnson said.

The vog is affecting the health of the locals, and from Johnson's account, it is also disrupting the scenic Hawaiian landscape that the tropical paradise is renowned for among tourists.

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