A surge in toxic gas resulting from a new vent that opened on Hawaii's Kilauea volcano is killing crops on the Big Island and enveloping the area in a haze, sparking health concerns.
Although residents of this volcanic island are used to toxic gas, the spike in sulfur dioxide from Kilauea has left people wheezing, and schoolchildren are being kept indoors during recess because of the "vog," or volcanic smog that is covering the area. High gas levels led Hawaii Volcanoes National Park to close for several days in April, forcing the evacuation of thousands of visitors.
Kirk Brewer, 33, an electrician who moved to the Big Island in 2006 from Southern California, blames his headaches and wife Tracy's itchy skin, sore throat and runny nose on the vog.
"It's a bummer when you go to the other islands and see how clear and blue it is, but we'll just deal with it," Brewer said.
Kilauea has been erupting continuously since 1983. But in mid-March, a second vent formed at the summit, giving Kilauea two large sulfur dioxide outlets.
Sulfur dioxide, which is also generated by burning coal and oil, can lead to asthma and other respiratory illnesses and aggravate lung and heart disease. When combined with dust and sunlight, it makes vog. Mixed with atmospheric moisture, it produces acid rain.
Exceptionally thick gray-white vog has hovered over parts of the Big Island for weeks, particularly areas downwind of the crater. The wind has blown vog to the island of Oahu, about 200 miles northwest, bathing Honolulu in a light haze.
Some crops are doing fine. Coffee and macadamia nuts, two of the Big Island's mainstays, appear unaffected. Koa and ohia trees are healthy, but eucalyptus leaves are turning brown, as are Asiatic lilies.
Protea may be the hardest hit, though experts don't know why. The hand-size blossoms are used in tropical floral arrangements and are a $1.8-million-a-year business in the islands.
Kelvin Sewake of the University of Hawaii College of Tropical Agriculture said he is not sure if it is the gas or acid rain that is killing the plants. He said Big Island protea growers have always dealt with sulfur dioxide "burns," but he has never seen it this bad.
Dan Wegner, the biggest protea farmer in Ocean View, with about 15 acres, said he usually records $70,000 in annual sales. This year, he is not sure if he will reap half that.
"This is taking my viable business right now and putting it right in the dumper. I don't know what I'm going to do," Wegner said. "It's frightening."
One reason the vog is worse is that the new vent is farther inland than the older one, which is on the mountain's seaside slope. While gas from the older vent often blows out to sea, the new plume is more likely to hit farms and communities in concentrated form.
The county has issued only two temporary, voluntary evacuation advisories for Ocean View and Pahala, which have a combined population of about 4,000. The vog that has settled over the Big Island has little or no odor.
The emergency room at Ka'u Hospital in Pahala is seeing an average of three people a day -- up from two -- with symptoms such as coughing and shortness of breath.
Dr. Cliff Field, emergency room director, said he was more concerned about the potential long-term harm. Large amounts of vog may cause emphysema and chronic lung disease over time. Still, he questioned whether living next to Kilauea is any worse than living in Los Angeles.
Sally Ancheta of the American Lung Assn. of Hawaii said people should stay inside when the vog was bad. But she added: "I would not recommend anybody leaving. It's too good of a place to live."