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On the Big Island, volcanic activity could worsen respiratory problems

On the Big Island, volcanic activity could worsen respiratory problems
A geologist takes a GPS waypoint of the leading edge of the lava flow near the town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawaii. The volcano has worsened the air quality, which may exacerbate respiratory problems. (Associated Press / U.S. Geological Survey)

Visitors to the Big Island who suffer chronic respiratory problems are being urged to take common-sense precautions because of air pollution caused by volcanic activity.

Conditions are right for increasing particulate levels over southern and eastern parts of the Big Island, said Darryl Oliveira, chief of Hawaii County Civil Defense.

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The lava eruption that began in June has not moved farther downslope toward the village of Pahoa, but its flow has widened. The molten rock burns dry vegetation in its path. That smoke, combined with ash from the Kilauea volcano, creates a haze that the locals call "vog."

Air quality levels remained good over much of the island as of Friday afternoon, according to the Hawaii Department of Health website, but particle pollution climbed into the "moderate" zone in Hilo. That could pose problems for "unusually sensitive" people, the website said.

"We haven't seen any spike in respiratory cases due to the vog," Oliveira said. But visitors with serious respiratory problems might want to consult with their doctors, he said.

Exposure to vog can be reduced through simple steps in a car such as closing the windows, turning on the air conditioning and activating the "recirculate" setting.

It's generally the Kona coast that experiences poorer air quality because of vog, he said. During the next week or so, a southerly wind will carry the pollution over the region stretching about from Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to Hilo.

The flow of lava toward Pahoa remained stalled on Friday. Oliveira said the red-hot lava is about one-third of a mile uphill from Highway 130 and the village police and fire stations. But, at present, he said it poses no threat to the community.

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