Eruptions on HI’s Big Island Endanger Workers with Sulphur Gas, Possible Lava Boulders

Liz Carey

Hilo, HI ( – As the eruption of Kilauea volcano continues into its second week, Hawaii County officials said that some of its employees have been exposed to poisonous sulphur gas as a result.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency announced Monday that the current volcano eruption is now producing sulphur dioxide and other hazardous emissions. Authorities are asking residents to leave the area if they can, and if not to shelter in place. Called Vog — for volcano fog — the gas is invisible to the naked eye, and only specialized masks are able to protect “from the dangerous gases and particulate matter that are being released in the current volcanic activity.”

A spokesman with Hawaii County Civil Defense’s Human Resources department said that while the county has not had any reports of injury, they have had several exposure incidents, and that employees have been instructed to report any time they are exposed to the fumes in order to process their workers’ compensation claims.

No reports have been made so far about journalists and scientists in the area on volcano watch.

Scott McLean, a reporter with CNN, tweeted earlier today that breathing in the noxious gas was painful.

“Took a real serious whiff of sulphur dioxide today near a vent and lava flow at Leilani Estates,” McLean tweeted. “The sensor in my hand was beeping and reached 66ppm (parts per million). I couldn’t breathe, and eyes and lungs burned momentarily. It may have actually been the worst 10 seconds of my life.”

According to the National Park Service, high doses of the gas can worsen lung function, asthma and heart disease.

“Sulfur dioxide irritates the skin and mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs,” the park service said on its website. “High concentrations of SO2 can cause inflammation and irritation of the respiratory system, especially during heavy physical activity. The resulting symptoms can include pain when taking a deep breath, coughing, throat irritation, and breathing difficulties… This gas can also react with other chemicals in the air and change to a small particle that can get into the lungs and cause similar health effects.”

The volcano started erupting on May 3, and has now grown to 19 fissures in the Leilani Estates about 30 miles from Hilo, the largest city on the Big Island of Hawaii. Seismologists and others predict the volcano may explode within the next few days, possibly raining down boulder-sized lava onto the area. Already lava flowing from the fissures and from the volcano has covered more than 117 acres of land.

As lava flows out of the volcano, the level of the lava lake inside the Kilauea crater falls. If the lava lake level falls below the water table, water may flood into the crater, causing a violent reaction, experts said.

Water coming into contact with the lava could generate steam that could explode from the summit. According to Hawaii Civil Defense, boulders as big as refrigerators could be tossed as far as half a mile from the volcano, and that ash plumes could shoot 20,000 feet into the sky. Some experts put the explosion within the next 24 to 48 hours from May 15. Airline flight restrictions are already in place over the island.

The Hawaii County Civil Defense Department of Human Resources official said that lava had not yet reached any businesses, but that the nearby Puna Geothermal Venture had ceased operations and had removed more than 60,000 gallons of highly flammable pentane gas used in its operations, as a precautionary measure. Two new fissures opened up near the plant over the weekend sending lava 100 feet into the air in places.

The official said there had also been no reports of injuries or deaths to civilians, residents or tourists. The eruption has covered over nine roads and taken out power poles, leaving hundreds without power. Officials are urging residents to evacuate the area, and are warning of the dangers in the volcano eruption with messages broadcast every hour.

In nearby Kau district, ash fall has already begun.

“On our tables in our breezeway in our visitor’s center, you can’t see it, but if you run your hand across the table, you can feel grit, so you know it’s in the atmosphere, you’re breathing it in right now,” Louis Daniele, manager at Kau Coffee Mill, told Hawaii News Now.