Hawaii volcano generates toxic gas plume, sparking new safety warnings

PAHOA, Hawaii — The eruption of Kilauea volcano in Hawaii sparked new safety warnings about toxic gas on the Big Island’s southern coastline after lava began flowing into the ocean and setting off a chemical reaction.

The molten rock started pouring into the sea over the weekend. It’s been generating plumes of lava haze or “laze” as it interacts with seawater.

It’s just the latest hazard from a weeks-old eruption that has so far generated earthquakes and featured gushing molten rock, giant ash plumes and sulfur dioxide.

The eruption has destroyed more than 40 buildings forced more than 2,000 people to evacuate.

On Monday, lava entered and then stalled on the property of a geothermal plant near one of Kilauea’s new volcanic vents.

Officials earlier this month removed 50,000 gallons of stored flammable gas from the plant to reduce the chance of explosions.

Lava haze is made of dense white clouds of steam, toxic gas and tiny shards of volcanic glass.

Janet Babb, a geologist with the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, says the plume “looks innocuous, but it’s not.”

Laze is formed when lava enters the ocean and triggers a series of chemical reactions.

The seawater cools the lava, which forms a glass that shatters. Tiny pieces are picked up by the steam cloud, which contains hydrochloric acid that also is created by the interaction of lava and the ocean.

“Just like if you drop a glass on your kitchen floor, there’s some large pieces and there are some very, very tiny pieces,” Babb said.

“These little tiny pieces are the ones that can get wafted up in that steam plume.”

Scientists call the glass Limu O Pele, or Pele’s seaweed, named after the Hawaiian goddess of volcano and fire.

The clouds contain hydrochloric acid, which is about as corrosive as diluted battery acid. It can irritate the skin and eyes and cause breathing problems.

Babb said protective masks that officials have been distributing to protect people from volcanic ash will filter particles from lava haze but not the hydrochloric acid.

Laze itself is not enough to cause serious burns, Babb said, unless someone is right on top of where lava enters the ocean.

Waves also can wash over molten lava and send scalding water onshore, so people should maintain a safe distance.

No major injuries have been reported from lava haze. The U.S. Geological Survey said laze contributed to two deaths in 2000, when seawater washed across recent and active lava flows.

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