Is vog harmful to my health? People with pre-existing respiratory conditions (such as asthma or emphysema) are more likely to experience health effects from vog which may include: headaches, breathing difficulties, respiratory ailments, watery eyes, and sore throat. The long-term health effects of vog are unknown although some studies are underway at the University of Hawai‘i.
Sulfur dioxide (SO2) gas is a major component of vog. SO2 is an irritant gas that is usually removed or filtered out by the nasal passages in your nose. During moderate physical activity that triggers mouth breathing (such as a brisk walk) SO2 can get deep into the airway and can make breathing difficult for some individuals, particularly those with asthma and other respiratory conditions.
What is sulfur dioxide (SO2)? Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is a colorless gas and is often described as the "smell of burning sulfur". Emissions of SO2 are largely from fossil fuels, coal, and oil, but can include agricultural activities, fires, and volcanic emissions. Estimates are that the volcanos on the Big Island emit between 1000-3000 tons of SO2 every day. This greatly exceeds emissions from factories in the US, which are governed by the EPA. A major source of pollution is a company that emits more than 100 tons of pollution per year, far lower than our volcanos.
What are the health effects of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and who is most at risk? People with asthma who are physically active outdoors are most likely to experience the health effects of SO2. The main effect, even with a short exposure, is a narrowing of the airways. This may cause wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. Symptoms increase as SO2 levels and/or breathing rates increase. When exposure to SO2 stops, lung function typically returns to normal within an hour. At very high levels, SO2 may cause wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath even in healthy people who do not have asthma. The symptoms are especially felt by children and those with pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, emphysema, lung or heart disease.
What can I do to protect myself or prepare for possible health effects of vog? If you have asthma or other respiratory conditions, keep your medication refilled and use your daily (controller) medication as prescribed. If you don't have any medications, but feel you might need them, call your physician. If you are not at work, stay indoors, and close the windows and doors tightly; use an air conditioner with the outside vent closed so that it is recirculating inside air only. Drink liquids to avoid dehydration. If you are having asthma symptoms such as trouble breathing, increased coughing or chest tightness, contact your doctor or seek medical assistance. When working outside during vog days, it can feel harder to breathe, especially as Kona wind days are more humid. Have medication if you have respiratory problems. Breathing through your nose and staying hydrated can help reduce symptoms.