This website uses cookies. By continuing you are agreeing to our privacy policy.

Health Tips for People in Areas Affected by Volcano Eruptions

(June 28, 2018)

Kilauea on the Big Island of Hawaii is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and has been actively erupting in recent weeks. Major volcano eruptions are rare, but they can represent a serious risk to your lung health. Volcanos produce and release gases mixed with water and tiny particles that form a type of pollution called vog. Erupting volcanoes also spew volcanic ash. Both vog and volcanic ash can be harmful, so learn more to take steps to protect yourself and your family.

What is in vog?

Vog contains a mix of dangerous components. One of the gases volcanos like Kilauea release is sulfur dioxide (SO2). SO2 levels in vog are greatest close to the volcano. SO2 irritates the eyes and causes a range of harmful effects on the lungs, including wheezing, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing.

SO2 reacts with other chemicals in the air to form both liquid and solid particle pollution as it travels downwind. The particles scatter light, making the air appear hazy. Particle pollution can cause asthma attacks, heart attacks and can kill.

Kilauea also produces tons of lava every day. When the lava flows into the ocean, the intense heat evaporates the water, vaporizing salts at the same time. As the water vapor cools, the salts recombine and hydrogen chloride is formed. This reacts with water to form droplets of hydrochloric acid and even tiny glass particles. The droplets scatter light forming a haze called "laze," named for lava and haze.

What is volcanic ash?

Volcanic ash is different from the ash produced by combustion of flammable material like wood. Volcanic ash consists of jagged fragments of rocks, minerals and volcanic glass. Sometimes, these ash particles can be so small that they can be breathed deep into the lungs. Breathing in volcanic ash can cause coughing, chest tightness, wheezing and other health problems similar to health problems from particle pollution

Who is at risk?

The American Lung Association warns that people most at risk include children and teens, seniors, people with lung disease, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cardiovascular diseases and diabetics. Healthy adults exercising or working outdoors also face increased risk. Residents should be aware that people both close to and far from the eruption face health risks. Wind moves the vog and ash away from the volcano. Wind direction determines which part of the surrounding area will be affected.

What to Do

If vog or ash will be heavy in your area, take these extra precautions, especially if you suffer from a chronic breathing problem such as asthma or COPD:

  • Do not smoke. Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Stay indoors and use an air-conditioner, if possible. Keep the air conditioner setting on "recirculate."
  • If you have medications, put them in a convenient place. It is important to continue taking your medication. 
  • Medications you need for an acute episode should be readily available. If you don't have any medications, but feel that you might need them, call your physician. Make sure you have clear instructions from your physician as to what to do if your lung condition suddenly worsens.
  • Assume that your lung condition may deteriorate during periods of vog and ash, and contact your physician as soon as any problem develops. Do not allow a respiratory condition to linger, especially if there is high volcanic activity.
  • Monitor the wind direction to find out if vog or ash will be blown in your area that day. You can find out the wind direction by watching the television weather report, listening to a weather radio, by checking the weather section of your local newspaper or visiting www.airnow.gov.
  • Drink plenty of fluids unless you have a medical condition that requires you to limit your fluid intake.
  • Avoid outdoor physical exertion if you have breathing problems.
  • Don’t count on a dust mask. A paper, gauze surgical, or non-toxic dust mask will not filter out the dangerous smaller particles and masks may not fit well. NOTE: If you find it more difficult to breathe with the mask on, don't use it. A mask is the least important of these suggestions.
  • Ask about your oxygen use. People using oxygen should not adjust their levels of intake before consulting a physician. (Call your doctor BEFORE you take any action.)
  • While these suggestions are focused on persons having chronic lung diseases (asthma and COPD), they are also useful for normally healthy persons during volcanic haze episodes.

Informational Links

Red button with telephone
Ask An Expert

Questions about your lung health? Need help finding healthcare? Call 1-800-LUNGUSA.

Get help
Red button of two hand prints
We need your generous support

Make a difference by delivering research, education and advocacy to those impacted by lung disease.

Button of turquoise LUNG FORCE swirl
What is LUNG FORCE?

LUNG FORCE unites women and their loved ones across the country to stand together in the fight against lung cancer.

Get involved
Join the fight for healthy lungs and healthy air.
Donate Now.