Some health experts say the state and county should be more cautious in their approach.

With less than a week before Maui County begins letting fire survivors back to their scorched properties in Lahaina and with travel restrictions into West Maui set to lift Oct. 8, many are still wondering whether it’s safe to breathe the air in and around the burn zone.

The county advises anyone entering the neighborhoods affected by the Aug. 8 blaze to wear personal protective equipment and to not go at all if pregnant, elderly, young or medically compromised.

But experts question what level of PPE is sufficient as some residents report breathing difficulties after visiting the area. Is a full-on respirator required or just a mask like those worn during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic?

State health officials say the air quality in Lahaina is fine but urge people who may return to the area to wear personal protective equipment. (Army National Guard/Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Foster/2023)

Jane Williams, a California-based expert in environmental hazards following natural disasters, said the public should be extremely guarded about breathing Lahaina’s air.

“We want to prevent what happened at the Twin Towers from happening again,” she said.

During the 9/11 attacks in 2001, an estimated 400,000 people were exposed to toxic air from the World Trade Center burn pile. Nearly 80,000 people have physical and mental health conditions related to their exposure to dust, smoke, debris and the traumatic events of that day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hawaii Health Director Dr. Kenneth Fink says high winds and cleanup activities can affect the air quality in the burn zone so protective equipment is advised. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

In the aftermath of the attacks, then-EPA Administrator Christine Whitman told the public that the air was safe to breathe, something she later said she regrets.

Preliminary data from ambient air quality monitoring in Lahaina and Upcountry areas affected by recent wildfires is reassuring, according to Dr. Kenneth Fink, the state health director.

The results do not show evidence of poor air quality or any hazardous levels of contaminants in the air at the time the samples were taken, he said in a press release Friday.

While the early data looks good, Fink said it’s critical to remember that high winds or cleanup activities can cause dust and ash to become airborne and enter the respiratory system, so wearing protective gear including at least an N95 mask is advised.

Precautions should also be taken in nearby areas if winds kick up ash from burned places, he added.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducted the air sampling in late August. The agency collected over 100 samples and looked for fine particulates, volatile organic compounds, asbestos, lead and arsenic, according to the release.

President Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Gov. Josh Green and his wife, Jaime Green walk down Front Street in Lahaina, Monday. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
From left, President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Gov. Josh Green and his wife, Jaime Green, walked down Front Street in Lahaina during a visit of the burn zone last month. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Fires create a variety of environmental hazards both while burning and afterward. Toxic airborne particles like asbestos, silica dust, arsenic and lead are among the most concerning.

Under a federal law known as the PACT Act signed by President Joe Biden last year, which Williams helped pass, hundreds of thousands of U.S. veterans are now receiving medical care for illnesses presumed to be related to their proximity to burn pits used to destroy military waste.  

A dangerous chemical often released in fires is dioxin, which is highly carcinogenic. Dioxin can be created when older electrical equipment is burned.

Prior to 1979, electrical transformers often contained polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, human-created organic chemicals that can cause a range of human health problems. When burned, PCBs create dioxin.

Williams advises anyone digging around in rubble looking for personal belongings to wear a P100 respirator, also called a cartridge mask because it contains carbon filters.

“An N95 mask is not sufficient in my view,” Williams said.

The Sierra Club of Hawaii reached out to Hawaiian Electric to inquire about whether any of its roughly 300 transformers that were damaged in the Lahaina fire contained PCBs.

In its Sept. 8 response, the company said there was just one transformer identified as manufactured prior to 1980. Company records indicate it was analyzed and did not contain detectable levels of PCBs.

An additional transformer might have been manufactured pre-1980, but records indicate it was made by a company that did not use PCBs, according to Hawaiian Electric.

Hawaiian Electric and government officials have said they think a downed power line near the intersection of Lahainaluna Road and Hookahua Street sparked the morning fire Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Hawaiian Electric and government officials have said they think a downed power line near the intersection of Lahainaluna Road and Hookahua Street sparked the morning fire Aug. 8 in Lahaina. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Whether other electrical transformers not owned by Hawaiian Electric burned in the Lahaina fire is unknown.

That’s cause for concern for environmental watchdogs like Henry Curtis, executive director of the nonprofit Life of the Land.

“We know that some people have had breathing issues when they went after the fire to provide support,” he said. “There is not a simple solution to detoxifying the area.”

Lahaina resident Blake Ramelb has felt tightness in his chest after breathing the air in his incinerated hometown and has met others who said the same, he said.

Lahaina resident Blake Ramelb wants more air quality testing from the state and EPA. (Courtesy: Blake Ramelb)

A digital creator with a large following on Instagram, Ramelb is advocating for more testing by the state and the EPA and better information-sharing.

The air quality testing data that came out last week is only preliminary and was released more than a month after Lahaina went up in flames.

Ramelb thought it was bad form for Biden, Gov. Josh Green and Maui Mayor Richard Bissen to have toured Lahaina last month without wearing masks.

“That sent a terrible message,” he said, noting how people came away thinking the air was fine.

Pedro Haro, executive director of the American Lung Association in Hawaii, said the Department of Health should have come out with strong public messaging after the president’s visit that walking around without an N95 mask is not an example to be followed.

“The number one cancer killer in Hawaii is lung cancer,” he said, nothing how Native Hawaiians have a 200% higher likelihood than other groups to get the disease. “It’s an incredibly serious problem.”

Hawaii also ranks among last in the nation for early detection of lung cancer, he said.

Given those statistics and Lahaina’s history as being the former capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, it’s particularly important to protect the health of Native Hawaiians, other residents and visitors returning to the ash-strewn town, Haro said.

Nearly 100 people died in the Lahaina fire Aug. 8, and more than 2,000 structures were destroyed. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The state Department of Health says it has dedicated significant resources to clearly communicate environmental hazards related to the Maui wildfires.

A DOH spokesperson said the agency welcomes efforts by the American Lung Association and other organizations “to amplify the multiple hazard advisories and additional messaging that we have issued.”

Maui County has provided an extensive list of precautions for people planning to reenter burned Lahaina neighborhoods. They include wearing long-sleeve shirts and pants, gloves, safety googles, steel-toed shoes and P100 respirators. At a minimum, an N95 mask is advised.

Clothing worn in the burn zone should be changed before coming into contact with people who are vulnerable, including those with respiratory illnesses like asthma, government officials say.

If combing through the ruins of a building constructed before 1978 or if the building is known to have contained asbestos, use of a P100 respirator is advised. Many buildings in Lahaina, where more than 2,000 structures were destroyed in the fire, predate the 1970s.

The Department of Health and EPA installed 13 real-time sensors in Lahaina and Upcountry following the wildfires. The sensors check for particulates, which indicates ash and dust.

In addition, the department has permanent air quality monitoring stations collecting real-time data, one in Kahului and one in Kihei.

Property owners and residents will be contacted before the start of the process for acquiring passes for reentry into cleared zones begins on Friday, the county said in its daily update Monday. Reentry into those zones is expected to begin Monday, with residents escorted to the properties and provided personal protective equipment during the first two visits.

The county says it is working closely with the state Department of Health to monitor air quality, as well as with cultural advisers and mental health professionals, in facilitating the reentry visits.

“I cannot stress the importance of supporting people going through this experience,” said Darryl Oliveira, interim administrator of the Maui Emergency Management Agency, in the county update. “We also want to make sure they’re safe.”

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

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