Study renews concern
Public concerns about fumes from Kilauea volcano have revived since the release of the first half of a study that assessed the possible health effects of long-term exposure to low levels of sulfur dioxide gases.
The study by Oregon State University warned that residents living downwind from Kilauea might have elevated risks of respiratory and cardiac problems because of high levels of sulfur dioxide and aerosol particulates.
Sulfur dioxide gases emitted from the vents at Kilauea cause respiratory irritation in some people but not in everyone, according to Tamar Elias, a chemist at the U.S. Geological Survey's Hawaiian Volcano Observatory.
"The take-home message is that individuals react differently. Some sensitive individuals will react," Elias said.
She said she usually gets at least one phone call a week from someone concerned about the health hazards of volcanic emissions.
The calls to the observatory have increased slightly since the Oregon State study was published in the journal Geology and newspaper accounts appeared on the Big Island.
Elias said officials are hesitant to make blanket statements about the effects of exposure to volcanic pollution because they lack solid data.
"There's just not very good information available. We're getting to the point where we're beginning to collect that information," Elias said.
Kilauea, which has been erupting since Jan. 3, 1983, is the nation's top single producer of sulfur dioxide. While people living close to the volcano can be exposed intermittently to higher concentrations of sulfur dioxide than people living in urban areas, they inhale much lower quantities of other pollutants common to cities, such as ozone, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons, Elias said.
The first half of the Oregon State study found sulfur dioxide levels were a "cause for concern," according to lead author Bernadette Longo. The second half of her report, which has not been released, will gauge whether there are significant health risks of chronic low-level exposure to volcanic fumes.
"We look forward to seeing the health results from the Oregon State University study," Elias said.
Ongoing studies by researchers at the University of Hawaii's Manoa and Hilo campuses are also assessing both long- and short-term health effects associated with volcanic pollution in populations on the Big Island.
Dr. Elizabeth Tam of the university's John A. Burns School of Medicine is studying the effects of chronic exposure to volcanic emissions and other airborne pollutants on about 2,000 Big Island children over four years.
Tam said she endorsed Longo's study, but noted that it covered only one part of the island and spanned three weeks. She said her own research in the past few years has found that some asthmatics do not react when they exercise in high levels of sulfur dioxide, so she started looking at the effects of mold and secondhand smoke.
"I endorse the geologic and atmospheric components of the study. I was surprised by the health risk implications she mentioned, because the paper really didn't cover any of that," Tam said. "We're excited to see what she comes up with in the rest of her study."