Rising seas and increased flooding could eventually release, spread and mix together a host of chemicals contaminating more than 800 sites across Hawaii, exposing the public to more potential health risks linked to climate change, local health experts warned lawmakers on Wednesday.

Those vulnerable spots are among the 1,000 or so sites with “stable” chemical contamination monitored by the Department of Health’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response Office, according to Diana Felton, the state’s toxicologist.

They’ve been found to contain compounds ranging from old paint lead and oil spills to more complex industrial chemicals, she said. Many of the sites were previously used in heavy industry and agriculture on the islands.

Those sites, while contaminated, are currently stable, contained and manageable, Felton told members of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee.

“What we’re worried about is that effects from climate change and rising sea levels will disrupt previously stable chemical contamination, creating new hazards,” she said.

Sea level rise climate change contamination
Scores of green dots representing contaminating sites cover Oahu’s southern shore. Health experts say many of these sites will be vulnerable to flooding and sea level rise. Hawaii Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response

Those sites are separate from the thousands of cesspools that pollute Hawaii’s watersheds, and which Felton said are also vulnerable to similar climate-related inundation. Her comments came during a wide-ranging and sobering report to the committee on the public health impacts facing Hawaii as climate change intensifies.

That briefing, from Felton and Elizabeth Kiefer, an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at the John A. Burns School of Medicine, covered health impacts linked to rising temperatures, coastal erosion, vector-borne diseases and the aftermath of hurricanes, among other facets of the climate crisis.

‘A Dark Topic’

Kiefer and Felton also discussed mental health challenges linked to climate change – studies that show a relationship between hotter years and more violent crime, for example – and so-called “eco-grief,” or the general despair people sometimes feel about the issue.

“This is a dark topic. It’s heavy stuff, and a little bit doomsday,” Felton told the lawmakers.

Still, she said, it’s necessary to discuss the health impacts that are imminent in order to prepare for them and devise potential solutions.

The contaminated sites, which are accessible on HEER’s online map, tend to concentrate around the islands’ military installations and industrial areas, Felton said. She determined the 800 vulnerable sites by comparing that map with the Hawaii state sea level rise viewer and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration flood map, she added.

Under that model, “the whole area of (Honolulu) Harbor will flood, moving around chemical contamination, mixing chemicals and creating more opportunities for exposure,” Felton told legislators.

Large waves hit a walkway near Fort DeRussy Beach Park in 2021 after tidal forecasts predicted higher than normal tides. Health experts say sea level rise and flooding could spur the release and mixing of chemicals contained at contaminated sites across the state. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Overall, increased instances in floods and storm runoff — releasing more wastewater and other contamination — could hinder the islands’ food supplies and lead to malnutrition, diarrhea and other serious health issues, the two health experts said.

Rep. Nicole Lowen, the committee’s chair, called it “a lot to process.”

Kiefer and Felton recommended creating public cooling centers similar to programs already in place in Arizona, and helping to make energy costs more affordable so that people can use air conditioning as temperatures rise.

They also recommended that lawmakers spur more mental health services in Hawaii and that they support more research into the local climate-related health risks.

Rep. Della Au Belatti, who sat in on the briefing, asked Felton whether Hawaii was getting any federal funding from the Centers for Disease Control’s “Building Resilience Against Climate Effects” program, or BRACE.

Felton said that only 16 states and cities have received that CDC grant funding and that it’s “hard to break in” to that program without the proper infrastructure.

The state recently created a new climate and health coordinator position to help wrangle all the disparate efforts related to health and climate change within its ranks, Felton said.

That could help attract more federal funding, but “the hiring process is still a giant black box for me” and the job hasn’t been officially posted yet, she added.

“I think that’s a really critical first step,” Au Belatti said. Partnerships with the CDC “are going to be critical.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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