Kilauea eruptions pump dangerous mercury into Hawaiian air
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
As Hawaiian residents scramble to save important mementos from molten lava flows, Kilauea is putting on a spectacular display of Earth’s grandeur.
But the red spray of liquid stone and bursts of natural glass shards erupting from the corona of the volcano hint at the dangers the latest activity holds. In addition to the volcano’s visible destruction, the chasm is a bubbling cauldron of chemicals and toxins.
At the mouth of Kilauea, now in its most active geothermal state, it is estimated that aerobic mercury saturation is somewhere between 50 to 200 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3).
Baseline measurements at nonthermal locations in Hawai’i typically measure from 0.001 to 0.02 µg/m3, indicating a clear danger to humans and wildlife in the area during the volcanic activity. Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that occurs naturally in the atmosphere.
While regions with active geothermal features, like Hawaii and Iceland, do have higher baseline aerometric measurements of mercury than regions that lack much geothermal activity, the levels are typically well below dangerous concentrations.
According to OSHA, the maximum continuous daily exposure to mercury should be 0.05 milligrams per cubic meter during a 10-hour workday. Residents on the Big Island are being exposed continually to geothermal gas releases containing aerosol mercury vapor.
The poison, mixed with sulfur dioxide and microshards of natural glass can easily be absorbed through human lungs. Children are particularly susceptible to mercury poisoning.
State officials are taking steps to help prevent Kilauea’s natural eruptions from becoming not only a terrible loss to Hawaii financially, but a health crisis, too. In addition to moving people to shelters, away from the direct flow of lava, they are distributing respiration masks that effectively filter the glass particulate.
Unfortunately, the masks offer minimal protection from the mercury vapor, but the physical distance from the craters, vents and chasms will help dissipate the mercury to safer air densities. Officials are carefully watching the wind patterns affecting the Kilauea smoke plume, with teams in place to move residents out of harm’s way should prevailing winds change direction.
Despite the terrific concentration currently occurring with Kilauea’s geothermal eruptions, it is important to note that more than 42 percent of the mercury released into the air in the United States is done so by man.
Kilauea is a very visible, dramatic illustration of nature’s impact. The idea that stone is being heated to such incredible temperature that it literally liquefies and releases the elements within as gas is amazing.
And yet, humans in the United States are releasing almost as much mercury as nature. Whether burning coal to produce electricity or disposing of lamps irresponsibly, humans are contributing to their own toxic ingestion.
The EPA has recognized the risks associated with improperly disposing of fluorescent lamps and requires nonresidential lamp users to recycle their spent lamps appropriately. Whether they box and seal their spent lamps for transport to a registered recycling facility or utilize a drum-top bulb crusher at their facility, commercial users have to make an effort to mitigate any potential release of mercury.
It would only take a handful of broken CFLs to cause the same aerobic saturation of mercury in an enclosed area, like a warehouse as the eruptions are causing near an active volcano. So, proper storage of spent lamps and disposal are key to protecting the environment.
Let Kilauea serve as a reminder to all. It takes monumental natural energy and truly cataclysmic natural activity to produce what we are able to produce through careless actions like being irresponsible with energy usage or not recycling fluorescent lamps.
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