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    Print or PDF

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

Dr. Elizabeth Tam, Chair of Medicine at the University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM), has headed scientific and medical research into air pollution generated by Kīlauea Volcano on Hawaiʻi Island, and measured its potential health impacts for more than two decades. Before this latest “intensified eruption” of Kīlauea Volcano, which has opened vents of lava in additional locations, Tam and her team reported in an 2016 article in the journal Environment International, that “Since the onset of eruption in 1983, (the volcano) has released at least 300 metric tons of sulfur dioxide (SO2) per day and as much as 30,000 tons per day during vigorous eruptive activity…”

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.”

“During active eruption, Kīlauea’s output can exceed 2 million metric tons (2 Tg) per year”, reported Dr. Tam and her collaborators, in the scientific journal Environment International, in May, 2016.

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:

volcano image


US Geological Service stillframe from USGS video at Halemaʻumauʻ Crater, May 2018.


Image location.

Read more.
Volcanic Air Pollution over the Island of Hawai’i Emissions, Dispersal, Composition Association with Respiratory Symptoms and Lung Function in Hawai’i Island Schoolchildren Environment International, May 2016.

Collaborators with Dr. Tam in the article included JABSOM colleagues Rei Miike and Susan Labrenz; A. Jeffery Sutton and Tamar Elias of the of the U.S. Geological Survey, Hawaiian Volcano Observatory; James Davis of the JABSOM Office of Biostatistics and Quantitative Health Sciences; Yi-Leng Chen of the UH Department of Meteorology, School of Ocean and Earth Science Technology, Kelan Tantisira of Channing Division of Network Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School; Douglas Dockery of the Department of Environmental Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Edward Avol of the Department of Preventive Medicine, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California.

Read video transcript.

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