Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hawaii’s Big Island and VOG Study: Respiratory illnesses rise when volcanic gases (VOG) increase

New research has shown a quantifiable link between upper respiratory problems and an increase in VOG, with children most affected by VOG polluted air on the Big Island.

Bernadette Longo, assistant professor at the University of Nevada Orvis School of Nursing, compared local health clinic records for the 14 weeks prior to the March 2008 eruption on the summit, to the health clinic records March through June 2008, when the volcano’s SO2 emissions tripled.

She found that there was a 56 percent increase in cough, and a six-fold increase in the odds of having acute airway problems. The clinic also saw three times as many headaches and twice as many severe sore throats after the increase in volcanic emissions.
“The results suggest that children and adolescents are likely to be the most sensitive to SO2 exposure, which is especially concerning,” Longo said. “Children tend to be mouth-breathers. When we breathe through our noses, our noses act as filters, removing about 85 percent of the harmful substances before they can reach our respiratory system and lungs,” she explained. “But, when children breathe mostly through their mouths, they don’t get the benefit of the nose’s filtering system.”

Longo said that in addition to children, the elderly, smokers and those with existing conditions such as asthma and emphysema are also especially at risk. She has been conducting research on vog for eight years and has identified those exposed to Kilauea’s vog are at greater risk of developing acute bronchitis than those not exposed to vog.
Longo also conducted studies published earlier this year in a Family and Community Health article, showing that a large percentage of the VOG SO2 was penetrating indoors, into the Ka’u schools and hospital, especially when air conditioning wasn’t installed or in use and windows were left open. As a result, the area’s schools have installed air conditioners and the hospital’s ventilation system has been improved, with more improvements planned as funding becomes available.

This past summer, Longo worked with local health-care agencies and emergency-room doctors to help provide education to the community about using air conditioners if they have them, closing windows and avoiding outdoor activity during the times of heaviest exposure, 7 p.m. to 10 a.m., each day.

“It is fairly safe for schoolchildren and residents to exercise, go fishing or play outside in the afternoons, when the trade winds keep the vog out of the area,” Longo said. “If people take the necessary precautions, they can lower the health risks posed by the vog, and ultimately, that is the purpose of our research,” she said.

The Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii’s big island has been erupting on its east rift since 1983. But, in March 2008, an additional eruption vent opened at the volcano’s summit, resulting in about triple the amount of sulfur dioxide gas (SO2) emissions drifting to the local community of Ka’u, raising health concerns over the risks associated with exposure to “vog,” as the islanders refer to this volcanic air pollution.

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