Hawai‘i’s silent danger: Volcanic smog, otherwise known as “vog”

The recent eruption of Hawai‘i’s Kīlauea has generated apocalyptic scenes of bright red lava exploding hundreds of feet into the sky and burning buildings consumed by the molten rock. But there’s another danger, silent and often unseen, that has been with Hawai‘i residents and visitors forever in varying degrees.

In Hawai‘i they call it “vog,” short for volcanic smog. It’s not a killer, in and of itself. But it has made tens of thousands sick over the years, feeling as if they have pneumonia or a horrible headache or bronchitis. For those with asthma or other respiratory conditions, it’s worse.

Vog, which mainly consists of water vapor, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide, can appear as “hazy air pollution.” It can also contain several other compounds such as hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen fluoride and carbon monoxide, all of which are harmful to people, according to the Geological Service. However, of the three primary gases, sulfur dioxide, which has an acrid smell reminiscent of fireworks or a burning match, is the “chief gas hazard in Hawai‘i,” the service reported.

Jennifer Griswold, an assistant professor of Atmospheric Sciences, told KHON-TV in 2017 about her reaction to vog when she first moved to Hawai‘i. “It felt like I had really severe tooth pain, or like I needed a root canal, or like someone was stabbing me in the face,” Griswold said. “I ended up going to a dentist who told me that my sinuses were so inflamed from the vog that they were essentially crushing the nerves of my teeth.”

Lacey Holland, post doctoral researcher in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, talked with KITV about the dangers of sulfur dioxide. Steven Businger, chair of the department, also talked about resulting acid rain with Hawaii News Now.

Read more about it and watch the videos (where available) in the Washington Post, KITV, and Hawaii News Now. Track current conditions at the Vog Measurement and Prediction Project (VMAP).