Paradise suffers scary form of air pollution: Volcanic smog

Thinking about escaping from the smoggy city by heading to the island paradise of Hawaii? You might want to reconsider. They can get something just as bad or worse — volcanic smog (or 'vog').

If you live in, or nearby, or even downwind of a major city, you're probably going to have some problems with smog. The mixture of air pollutants that goes into it (many of which come from the oxides of nitrogen that come from burning fossil fuels) can get pretty bad and even send people to the hospital. It's particularly bad when it's really sunny out but there's very little wind. The pollution just hangs over the area and 'cooks' (as smog these days is 'photochemical smog', which is produced by chemicals reacting in the presence of sunlight). Los Angeles, Mexico City and Hong Kong can see some of the worst smog conditions in the world, partly due to all the industry and cars in the area, and partly because they're located in places where the air gets very stagnant.

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You'd think that someplace like Hawaii would be pretty smog-free. It's sitting out in the middle of the ocean with some nice trade winds to keep the air moving, so that should make it a perfect vacation destination to get away and breath some clean air for a change. However, it turns out that the volcanoes on the islands can produce volcanic smog, or 'vog', that can get just as bad as what we experience back home.

"The trade winds generally blow the vog off-shore in a way that still makes the Big Island a beautiful place," said vog expert Steve Businger, who is a professor of meteorology at the University of Hawaii, according to NewsDaily. "Unfortunately it's not something we can control."

If those trade winds die down, the gas emissions from the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii's Big Island can accumulate in the area. These gases are mostly oxides of sulphur, and they react with sunlight and water vapour to make sulphuric acid aerosol particles. The concentrations don't get high enough to start eating away at everyone and everything on the island, but they are bad enough to cause damage to plants, and to the lungs of people and animals when they breathe it in, just like smog.

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The good news is that the air quality over Hawaii is still pretty good, overall. According to the American Lung Association, in the three years from 2009 to 2011, Los Angeles County reported over 230 days with unhealthy air quality due to ozone, and a total of 70 days where the air quality was unhealthy due to particulate matter. In that same time, Hawaii County didn't record any unhealthy days for ozone, and they had only had 35 days that had bad air quality due to particulate matter (although that was still enough to earn Hawaii County a failing grade on the American Lung Association's 'State of the Air 2013' report card).

(Photo courtesy: NOAA)

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