May 18, 2018

The Kilauea Volcano - one of the youngest and most active volcanoes in the Hawaiian Islands - has shown increased activity since early May. Although the volcano has been erupting since January 1983 along the Big Island's southeastern coastline, the most recent surge in activity has caused evacuations and transport disruptions in the eastern portion of the island.

It is difficult to predict how long the new eruptions will last; however, the recent seismic activity, active lava fissures, and continuous emissions of dangerous gases and ash show no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Authorities continue to observe high levels of sulfur dioxide at the volcanic fissures. The combination of sulfur dioxide, oxygen, and moisture has produced an area of volcanic smog - also known as "vog" - off the southern coast of the Big Island. Tradewinds are forecast to keep most of the vog over the Big Island, with the highest concentrations likely along the southern and western coastlines. Significant ash plumes observed at the Kilauea summit have been directed to the south and west of the main crater; depending on the wind direction at the time of ash emissions, ashfall could occur within an estimated 19-km (12-mile) radius of the volcano.

Residents and travelers should remain aware of the health risks associated with poor air quality produced by volcanic activity.


Health Related Risks

Volcanoes exist throughout much of the world, and some are near major metropolitan centers. Occasionally, meteorological patterns carry ash or gases from active volcanoes to populated areas, creating health concerns. Frequently, though, the dangers of falling ash are greater than the threat posed by lava emissions.

The most common and significant health concern from a volcanic eruption involves respiratory problems due to exposure to volcanic ash. Thermal burns to skin or mucous membranes require proximity to lava flows, typically limiting such injuries to individuals participating in geologic or volcanic surveys or ecotourism.

In many cases, ash exposure may be unavoidable due to wind patterns that can carry volcanic ash to populated areas. People with underlying pulmonary conditions such as asthma, COPD, or lung cancers may experience difficulty breathing and could suffer from lower tolerance to physical exertion than healthier individuals. These individuals should take additional precautions to avoid excessive ash exposure. Eye and skin irritations may occur as well.


Symptoms of Ash Exposure

Many symptoms of ash exposure depend on the size of the particles, the concentration of ash in the air, the duration of exposure to particles, the composition of silica and gas in the ash, the meteorological conditions, and the health of the affected individuals.

Common respiratory symptoms include the following:

  • Nasal discharge
  • Throat irritation with or without a dry cough
  • Severe symptoms of bronchitis
  • Airway irritation
  • Discomfort when breathing

Eye symptoms may include the following:

  • Sensation that there is something in the eye
  • Painful, itchy, or reddened eyes
  • Tearing or thickened discharge
  • Corneal abrasions or scratches
  • Acute conjunctivitis

Besides lung and eye problems, skin irritation may also occur from the acid coating of many ash particles, and contact with bare skin can lead to irritation. Volcanic ash may also increase the risk of trauma due to reduced visibility or slip-and-falls. 


Things to Consider

Fruits and vegetables should be washed thoroughly if there was a chance of exposure to ash or other volcanic gases. Water with an odd odor or cloudy appearance should be filtered.

Falling ash may interrupt essential services and cause power interruptions, municipal water and sanitation delays or stoppages, and long-term agricultural issues. These complications may also increase the risk of communicable disease, especially if people have to shelter in place for extended periods of time. 


Preventative Health Measures

  • Avoid exposure to ash particles whenever possible.
  • To avoid inhaling ash, use a disposable respirator such as an N95, or cover the mouth and nose with a dampened handkerchief or scarf.
  •  If outdoor clean-up is necessary, attempt to work for short periods.
  • Wet the ash to reduce airborne disruption of the particles once they have settled.
  • Protect eyes with goggles or glasses.
  • Try to avoid wearing contact lenses, when possible.
  • Keep doors and windows closed during periods of heavy ashfall.
  • For people with underlying health conditions, remain indoors during the eruption, and handle ash only in well-ventilated areas.
  • Cover bare skin to prevent irritation from prolonged contact with particles.
  • Take special care when driving, as reduced visibility often occurs and increases the risk of traffic accidents.

Accumulation of ash, especially when wet can cause roof collapses. Avoid structural entrapments that may cause injury.



Up to this point, the ongoing volcanic activity has had a limited impact on business and travel operations on the Big Island. The situation certainly remains volatile, and changes in volcanic emissions are likely the coming days and weeks. Winds could direct ash plumes to more populated areas of the island, resulting in more widespread business, health and transport issues. Travel planners and meeting planners who organize corporate events or tourism to Hawaii have a responsibility to inform travelers about any health risks they may encounter during their trip.

Continuity plans regarding corporate travel to the Big Island in the coming weeks should take into consideration the new eruptive phase of the Kilauea volcanic activity. Having the most up-to-date information regarding the evolving evacuation zones, lava and gas emissions, and ash and smoke plume forecasts can better prepare travelers for a safe and enjoyable trip during a seemingly unpredictable natural phenomenon.


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