UH Med Now
What we know: Hawaiʻi medical school studied the health effects of volcanic pollution in Hawaiʻi Island school children for a decade
Date: May 15th, 2018 in JABSOM News
Pictured: Dr. Elizabeth Tam, UH Chair of Medicine, in her clinic at University Tower on The Queen’s Medical Center campus.
By Tina Shelton, UH JABSOM Communications Director
Even when the volcano appeared dormant during periods prior to 1983, her team reported that “Kīlauea’s SO2 emissions of 50,000–100,000 tons per year was 1000 times greater than the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) definition of a major pollution source.”
Dr. Tam and her colleagues studied some 2,000 Hawaiʻi Island school children and their families from 2002 through 2011, with data collection continuing through 2015. Engaging the community and collaborating with researchers from Harvard University and the University of Southern California, Tam and her colleagues followed the children’s health status, evaluated their home location and construction, monitored the air quality conditions, and checked the youngsters’ lung function over a decade, to learn what impact volcanic air pollution might be having on their health.
Generally, they found that if the children already had asthma, the vog – volcanic fog which results from a chemical reaction of sulfur dioxide and water vapor – increased their coughing and other symptoms. They did not find an increased onset of asthma in those who did not already have asthma, which occurs in higher than usual rates in Hawaiʻi.
The output of pollution from the volcano was startling. The researchers learned that during the period they monitored Kīlauea’s eruption, the amount of air pollution being produced in a year was equal to one-tenth of the reported pollution produced annually by the entire nation of China.
The recent increase in volcanic activity beginning in April 2018 and the resulting unpredictable lava flow from Kīlauea has destroyed homes, and caused the evacuation of entire neighborhoods. To learn more about the health impacts recorded in connection with the eruption at Kīlauea Volcano, UH Med Now conducted a half-hour interview with Dr. Tam about her study. The unedited interview is presented here in the public interest: