Study: Vog health impacts on rise


Vog doesn’t just get people worked up — it can literally raise their blood pressure.

A six-week study of Hawaii Island residents showed the negative health effects from Kilauea’s ongoing eruption included the finding that 60 percent of people 50 or older had high blood pressure, which is the No. 1 indicator that someone could suffer a heart attack or other cardiac condition, researcher and University of Nevada at Reno professor Bernadette Longo said.

“That’s something that’s treatable,” Longo said.

A number of Longo’s findings, published this month in the ISRN Public Health journal, which is available for free online, led to recommendations that can help people treat or mitigate vog’s effects. Longo and Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, said they see the need for more public health options in rural areas — Ka‘u and South Kona in particular — doing routine health screenings that may diagnose health impacts and may be treatable.

“This is a way for us to tell the Department of Health, deploy additional resources to Hawaii Island, to Kona and Ka‘u,” Green said. “We need more blood pressure checks and pulmonary checks here.”

Longo encouraged people who live in vog-affected areas to have annual physical checkups, including having their lung function measured, a process known as spirometry. Getting those baseline lung function levels, and comparing them annually, can provide insight into whether a person’s lung capacity is being impacted by the vog, Longo said.

Longo and other researchers conducted a study of vog’s health effects in 2004, when the eruption was on Kilauea’s east rift zone. The most recent study, completed in spring 2012, gave researchers a closer look at residents downwind of the volcano, where trade winds most commonly carry sulfur dioxide and particulate. So far this year, Longo added, air quality in that area recorded exceedences of air quality standards two-thirds of the time.

Since the 2004 study, the prevalence of health impacts has increased, Longo said. Researchers went door-to-door in several communities within the study area, which also included areas of Hamakua where residents were not exposed to vog on a regular basis.

In Ka‘u and South Kona, “you see a variety of responses to it,” Longo said. “Some people are fed up with it. Some people are religious about it, checking air quality every day. There’s others that don’t.”

But most people she asked to complete a 20-minute interview and health assessment were willing to do so, and willing to talk about their vog-related experiences.

“That really speaks about how concerned people are about it,” she said.

About 60 percent of people in the exposed area and about 37 percent of people in the unexposed area reported impacts to their health since the summit eruption in 2008.

“Exposed participants shared about daily experiences with the ongoing eruption and elevated vog, whereas unexposed residents described their experiences when vog came into their area or they visited an exposed area on the island,” Longo’s report said. “Health effects attributed to vog varied from minor nuisances to deterioration of health status.”

In addition to the findings about blood pressure, the study found evidence of vog-related skin irritation and lowered blood oxygen saturation.

The latter is the first symptom that leads doctors to diagnose someone with chronic lung disease, Green said.

The report also uses scientific research to “validate what I’ve been experiencing in emergency rooms and clinics for the past 15 years,” Green said, noting emergency room visits increase when vog levels go up.

The research backs up the need for more health monitoring, Longo wrote.

“Continuous epidemiologic surveillance, new screening programs, and enhanced evidence-based interventions for population health are recommended at Kilauea and other degassing volcanoes worldwide,” the paper said.

Historical records back up the findings, Longo’s paper noted. A 1783 eruption in Iceland “produced vog-like pollution over Europe, and medical records documented eye sensitivity, sore throat, cough, shortness of breath, rhinorrhea (runny noses), headache, and asthma-like exacerbations in the population,” the paper said. Workers returning to Japan’s Miyakejima Island in 2005, after evacuation because of a volcanic eruption, also reported coughing, sore throats and breathlessness.