Health officials recommend masks, goggles, gloves, coveralls and disposable shoe covers to prevent exposure.

When fire survivors begin returning to their destroyed properties Monday, many will seek mementos of former lives, keepsakes that may have escaped the Aug. 8 blaze that killed at least 97 people and displaced several thousand others.  

While the journey back may prove cathartic, it could also pose a danger in the form of microscopic particles buried within the dust and ash. As such, government officials are working with nonprofits and others to help provide information and safety gear to prevent the potentially harmful impacts.

The rubble of historic Lahaina’s buildings, vehicles and infrastructure likely contains asbestos, lead, arsenic, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins and many other chemicals and heavy metals, health officials say. Toxins from urban fires can make a person gravely ill, if even a tiny amount is inhaled or absorbed by the body, studies have found.

The Lahaina fire damaged some 2,200 structures and an untold number of vehicles, leaving much toxic residue behind. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

When Lahaina fire survivors get their passes beginning Friday to enter the burn zone next week, they will be offered a re-entry kit assembled by volunteers. It will contain fact sheets and personal protective equipment, or PPE.

The donated gear will include NIOSH-approved face masks, gloves, goggles, disposable shoe covers and coveralls, according to a state Department of Health news release Thursday.

“Kits put together by volunteer organizations will be made available for optional pick up by public accessing the zone,” according to an email from the Maui Joint Information Center on Wednesday.

Interim Maui Emergency Management Agency Administrator Darryl Oliveira speaks during a Maui County press conference Friday, Aug. 25, 2023, in Wailuku. Oliveira was named to the interim position today. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
Darryl Oliveira, a former Big Island fire chief, administers the Maui Emergency Management Agency. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

In a video message on Thursday, the Maui Emergency Management Agency administrator said the county isn’t issuing PPE itself or requiring people to wear it but advises using it.

“It’s just garments and covers that will allow them to access the area where you could have airborne particulate. We don’t want it to get on anybody’s skin. There will also be particle masks or respirators so that you don’t breathe in any of that,” MEMA Administrator Darryl Oliveira said.

The intention is for people to take a “gentle approach” to not disturb the ash to ensure their safety as well as others downwind, Oliveira said.

Gina Young, executive assistant to Maui County Council member Shane Sinenci, said she was told residents will not be allowed to dig through the rubble themselves. There will be authorized personnel wearing higher-grade PPE who will comb through the ash on their behalf, looking for personal effects.

Officials with the Department of Health will also be on hand to train people on how to use PPE, according to Young.

In its news release Thursday, DOH underscored the importance of masks fitting properly. The department recommends wearing at least an N95 to protect against exposure to ash and dust.

Highly rated masks may provide marginally better filtration, the release says, but if poorly fitting, can allow more unfiltered air in, leading to inhalation of ash and dust. The department says higher rated masks, such as a P100, may be harder on those with existing breathing problems but may be more important for those with extended exposure to very high levels of disturbed ash, such as recovery workers.

Maui County firefighters wore protective gear during search, rescue and recovery operations in August. (Hawaii National Guard/2023)

No one from DOH was available to comment, but the department issued an updated re-entry guide Thursday for temporary visits.

Some scientists think P100 respirators are the safer way to go if properly fitted.

Craig Downs, a scientist who studies the toxicology of mass disasters, questions whether the donated PPE being offered to the public will keep Lahaina residents safe. He recommended a P100 organic vapor respirator with cartridges for anyone entering the burn zone.

Downs, a doctorate-level researcher with a degree from the University of Hawaii, runs a nonprofit lab. He has consulted for communities following disasters, like the industrial train wreck in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3 when at least 11 rail cars carrying hazardous materials including vinyl chloride, derailed. The accident set several rail cars on fire, overturned others and sent toxic materials spilling into local waterways.

He also recommended wearing chemical gloves and chemical boots certified by the American National Safety Institute, and Tyvek coveralls intended for use with with pesticides or petroleum products.

Goggles, not safety glasses, are also important, to avoid chemical burns to the eyes, according to Downs.

Former Maui County Council member Kelly King is among a group of people, including Downs, who have ordered P100 organic vapor respirators along with other PPE suitable for urban fires and made them available for people already living near the burn zone.

King said she has heard reports of people near the burn zone coughing up blood, having headaches and other ailments that may be related to exposure to fire-related toxins.

“I’m really concerned,” she said. “They’re surrounded by this toxic environment.”

Downs, who worked with King and Councilwoman Tamara Paltin in getting a law passed that bans non-mineral sunscreens in Maui County because of their negative effects on coral reefs, said some Lahaina residents are constructing makeshift air purifiers in their homes in an attempt to keep their lungs free from airborne toxins.

Dubbed Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, the jerry-rigged devices combine box fans with duct tape and four or five HVAC filters. They apparently became popular during the Covid pandemic to filter out virus particles in indoor settings and their use is reportedly growing as wildfires become a more common occurrence.

Downs cautioned that DIY filter boxes may give them the impression that they’re purifying the air. But he said they’ll do little to protect people living near Lahaina’s burn zone from asbestos, lead and arsenic. At the very least, people should line the boxes with sheets of activated carbon to help trap some of the semi-volatile organic compounds, he said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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