National News

Erupting Volcano on Hawaii Releases Life-Threatening Gas, Officials Say

Posted May 5, 2018 9:22 p.m. EDT
Updated May 5, 2018 9:24 p.m. EDT

PAHOA, Hawaii — Images of the eruption of the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii offer a vivid display of yellow and red lava bubbling from fissures, orange fires, and white smoke, but authorities on Saturday warned of something unseen but no less dangerous: high levels of sulfur dioxide gas.

The gas is “an immediate threat to life for all who become exposed,” the Hawaii County Civil Defense Agency said in a statement.

Gaseous sulfur dioxide, which is colorless and smells like a burning match, can cause serious eye, nose and skin irritation as well as coughing, headaches and shortness of breath.

People with cardiovascular disease or respiratory ailments, such as asthma, are especially vulnerable. Older adults, infants and pregnant women are also particularly sensitive. No one knows the long-term health effects of exposure to volcanic sulfur dioxide, officials say.

“I know police, fire, who have been exposed to the gas, pretty much all of them went home sick with headaches,” Talmadge Magno, head of the Civil Defense Agency, said Friday. He explained that sulfur dioxide affects everyone differently, and almost always adversely. “If you’ve got any respiratory issues, it could be deadly to you.”

The gases are released from magma when the pressure of the earth is no longer able to contain them, similar to opening a bottle of Champagne or a can of soda, said Esteban Gazel, an associate professor at Cornell University, who studies volcanoes.

Inhaling the gas is dangerous because it turns into an acid when it comes in contact with the upper respiratory tract, he said, adding, “You’re going to feel like you’re burning.”

Elena Cabatu, a spokeswoman for the Hilo Medical Center in Hilo, Hawaii, the main hospital that was prepared to treat affected patients, said Saturday that there had not been an increase in emergency room visits, adding that people appeared to have stayed away from the areas with the highest concentration of gases.

Residents of the Leilani Estates and Lanipuna Gardens subdivisions were ordered to evacuate, officials said.

The Hawaii Police Department and members of the National Guard were helping to enforce road closings where gas levels were deemed unsafe. As of Friday night, there were 58 National Guard soldiers working in three shifts and about 75 police officers working in 12-hour shifts, officials said.

There had been no reports of injuries or death, according to officials. As of Saturday afternoon, at least five homes had been destroyed by lava, said Janet Snyder, a spokeswoman for the office of the mayor of Hawaii County. New fissures were also reported on Saturday. Officials said firefighters were not responding to fires within the subdivisions because of the high levels of gas.

The volcanic eruptions on the southern end of the island of Hawaii prompted about 66 residents to go to shelters Friday night and forced the closing of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

Lava began bubbling up through a new crack in the Kilauea volcano Thursday evening. The eruptions came after days of small earthquakes, capped by a more powerful one with a magnitude of 6.9 that struck the south flank of the volcano on Friday at 12:33 p.m. Hawaii time.

At a standing-room-only meeting attended by residents Friday night, officials provided updates about what to expect from the eruptions.

Residents expressed concerns about leaving their homes and the potential for looting. Others worried about the lava’s uncertain path and about pets left behind in their haste to evacuate.

“At one point I moved here with a pallet full of stuff trying to, I guess, seek the adrenaline rush or whatever it was that led me to the Ring of Fire,” said a resident, Tiffany Edwards Hunt. “And at some point I started to acquire possessions. I rooted. This became my beloved community and it’s so hard to remember the basic premise that everything is so temporary.”

She added, “I keep reminding myself that we’re clinging to an active volcano.”