State health and education officials say it’s safe for kids to come back but some parents and teachers have doubts.

As Lahaina schools reopen Monday for the first time since the deadly Aug. 8 wildfires on Maui, angst is running high among some parents and teachers concerned about children returning to classrooms close to the burn zone.

State education and health officials say the air, water and soil at Lahaina’s three still-existing schools — King Kamehameha III Elementary on Front Street was largely destroyed — are safe based on weeks of comprehensive testing.

But on Sunday they cautioned that ash samples taken in Kula last month, where an Upcountry fire destroyed 19 homes, show “extremely high levels of arsenic” as well as high levels of lead and cobalt.

A crew from the EPA sprayed Soiltac on a burned lot in Lahaina last week to seal down potentially toxic ash so it does not spread in the wind or wash into the ocean. (Courtesy: Environmental Protection Agency/2023).

Health Director Dr. Kenneth Fink said in a press briefing that the composition of Kula’s ash is likely similar to that of Lahaina’s. The level of arsenic in the Kula ash is 140 times higher than “environmental action levels,” a metric used in public health decision-making.

The remnants of some 2,200 destroyed buildings and many vehicles litter much of Lahaina, once a vibrant coastal town and former capital of the Kingdom of Hawaii that drew visitors from around the world.

Lahaina’s rubble and ash likely contain residue from plastics, electronics and paint, as well as lead, asbestos, dioxins, arsenic, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and an array of other substances linked to short- and long-term illnesses.

Although the Environmental Protection Agency began spraying the ash on Friday with Soiltac, a dust suppressant, to hold it in place, some parents and teachers are concerned that won’t be enough to control what the wind picks up and blows toward Lahainaluna High School, Lahaina Intermediate and Princess Nahienaena Elementary, a school complex roughly 2,500 feet from the burn zone that reopens this week.

“It’s not a safe place to be. I just feel like it’s common sense,” said Kauna’oa Garcia, a teacher at Kula Kaiapuni o Nahienaena, a Hawaiian immersion program that’s integrated into Lahaina’s public schools. As of last week, Garcia was planning to keep her kids as far away from the contaminated ash as possible.

Kauna’oa Garcia teaches at a Hawaiian immersion school in West Maui. She’s originally from Lanai, seen in the background. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

With Hawaii’s rainy winter season approaching, fears are mounting that wind gusts could blow particles of ash and soot into children’s developing lungs, as well as those of teachers and residents nearby. Lead is particularly toxic for young children and babies in utero as it hinders the development of the brain, according to DOH. 

EPA and the state health department have placed real-time air sensors around the burn zone in Lahaina and at schools. They monitor continuously for what scientists call PM 2.5. That’s particulate matter 0.0025 millimeters and smaller in size, about 30 times smaller than a human hair, according to the state Department of Health. Particulates can come from ash, dust, smoke and air pollution.

One air sensor is located at Lahainaluna High School. A second is at Kelawea Mauka Makia Park. Others are farther west: one at the Lahaina Pump Station Number 4, one at Villages of Leialii, and one at the Lahaina Civic Center. Additional sensors have been stood up by the Department of Health, said Rusty Harris-Bishop, an EPA spokesman.

DOH has installed a weather station at Lahaina Intermediate to track wind patterns and trends. Biweekly “wipe tests” will be carried out at Lahaina schools to test for particulates settling on surfaces.

If air sensors don’t detect particulate levels above baseline, then DOH considers the air safe. The public can view results online or on EPA’s AirNow app which can be configured to issue alerts.

The Hawaii Department of Health says testing in late August by the EPA indicated that the ambient air is safe to breathe. Fink reiterated that in a news release last week, saying “the air quality is good.”

Director of the state Department of Health Dr. Kenneth Fink addresses concerns for safety during Hawaii State Department of Education’s announcement to reopen schools in West Maui on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, at Kapalua Airport in Lahaina. The Army Corps of Engineers will be building a temporary replacement school for King Kamehameha III Elementary. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
State Health Director Dr. Kenneth Fink says there has been no ash sampling yet in Lahaina but the testing in Kula revealed high levels of arsenic. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

But he added a caveat.

“It’s important to remember that air monitoring is indicative of the ambient air quality, and cleanup activities could cause hazardous dust and ash to become airborne,” Fink said.

That’s exactly what worries some parents and educators, some Maui County Council members and at least one state lawmaker. Even if the air quality is fine now, will it remain safe whenever the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers starts the debris removal process?

“It’s hard to trust the government,” said Charmane Yamada, a preschool teacher and mother of three girls. “You’re talking about our children here. We don’t want to take even a little chance with our next generation.”

The health department advises people to wear a well-fitting N95 or higher-rated mask and other personal protective equipment when exposure to the ash is high, like when someone returns to their burned property. Precautions should also be taken in nearby areas should ash get disturbed from high winds, reentry activities and debris removal.

A health department spokesman said by email that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will develop dust mitigation and air monitoring plans in consultation with the Department of Education.

“We understand that the community has questions and concerns about the impacted area and we will continue to provide guidance that is protective of human health,” said Shawn Hamamoto, DOH spokesman. “We have and continue to communicate that the ash should be considered to contain toxic substances and appropriate precautions should be taken.”

Lahainaluna High School's football team will play its first game of the season Saturday at War Memorial Stadium against Baldwin. It's possible the team will get to play at their home stadium overlooking Lahaina later this season. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)
Lahainaluna High School, located above the burn zone, reopens to students Monday for the first time since the Aug. 8 fires. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

On Sunday, DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi said his department has updated its health and safety guidance with steps schools would take if the air quality deteriorates. Schools would consult with DOH’s Environmental Services Unit if conditions go from safe to potentially unsafe.

On DOE’s chart, green indicates the air is presumed safe. If conditions drop from yellow to orange on the chart, schools would turn on air filters, turn off central air conditioning and suspend outdoor activities. At sustained levels of red, schools would transition to distance learning. If air quality moved into the purple zone, students and teachers would shelter in place or close if not yet in session, he said.

The American Lung Association has been fielding requests from concerned residents who live near the burn zone and are worried about their health.

The week before last, some 150 people called looking for air purifiers, said Pedro Haro, executive director of the association’s Hawaii office. He’s already distributed about 50 units.

Pedro Haro is executive director of the American Lung Association of Hawaii. (Courtesy: American Lung Association)

“There’s a huge need,” said Haro, who wants Hawaii’s congressional delegation to create a World Trade Center-style health registry so the state can track how the August fires affect human health now and in years to come.

Haro and his staff are encouraging manufacturers of industrial-sized air purifiers to donate units to Lahaina schools and other buildings like the civic center. Haro is also applying for a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation so he can purchase more air purifiers for people’s homes near the burn zone.

Rebekah Uccellini-Kuby, a fire relief advocate who is volunteering with Kakoo Maui, said she’s also fielding requests for air purifiers.

Survivors who live in neighborhoods near the burn zone or people who have visited their burned properties to sift through what’s left in the ash have reported respiratory problems, skin rashes, headaches, eye irritation, sore throats and other medical issues, she said.

“Many people feel like they’ve had Covid,” even though they test negative, Uccellini-Kuby said.

Children are particularly vulnerable to air pollution as are the elderly, pregnant women and individuals with lung and heart conditions.

Kids breathe in more air than adults for their body weight, increasing their total exposure to air pollution, according to DOH.

Charmane Yamada, a preschool teacher and mother of three girls, says when it comes to kids, it’s not worth taking a chance. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2023)

Dr. Albert Rizzo, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, said it’ll be incumbent upon teachers to look out for any signs of students who may be experiencing respiratory distress or other impacts from breathing ash particles from the burn zone, symptoms such as coughing, headaches or simply acting out of the ordinary.

“Children don’t always make complaints like adults do as far as how they’re feeling and what their symptoms are,” he said.

Teachers should not hesitate to report any unusual symptoms to school nurses and the children’s parents or guardians, he said.

“We don’t have any known answers as to what the exposures will be,” Rizzo said. “The winds are going to carry these things away from the exact site.”

The Department of Education said air filters will be stationed “in all spaces at school,” according to a health and safety guidance document for reopening Lahaina schools. Each school administrator “will have a handheld sensor to monitor indoor air quality if there are any concerns.”

Each school also has its own site-specific emergency action plan to protect the health and safety of everyone on campus, the guidance document says. It notes that the plan is confidential.

Yamada said even if air, water and soil testing surrounding Lahaina’s three schools shows no evidence of problems, schools should remain closed for now because children may be psychologically and emotionally harmed by witnessing the fire destruction daily.

Attending school overlooking the burn zone will constantly remind them of lives lost and the town’s incineration. At least 98 people died in the Lahaina fires.

Parents are concerned that students traveling to and from school in Lahaina could be re-traumatized by seeing the burned areas. (Ku’u Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2023).

Yamada cries every time she drives past Lahaina. She feels that souls of deceased fire victims permeate the area, like a graveyard.

“Those spirits are not settled,” she said, wiping away tears during an interview last week in Kaanapali.

Many people are still actively processing the trauma of Aug. 8.

“I don’t think people have really grieved yet. They’re too worried about where they’re going to live,” she said.

State Sen. Angus McKelvey sent a letter to Hayashi last week asking him to hold off on reopening Lahaina schools because of health and safety concerns. Over the weekend, McKelvey said he and the superintendent were still trading phone messages.

“We need to pump the brakes on behalf of our kids,” McKelvey said in a phone interview.

On Sunday, Hayashi said he and his department “continue to believe that the reopening of Lahaina schools to in-person learning is critical to the wellbeing of our students and to the Lahaina community.”

He said the DOE will be flexible with student absences during the first week so parents have time to absorb the new information about the extremely high levels of arsenic and high levels of lead and cobalt likely in the ash.

Fink said ash sampling has yet to happen in Lahaina. He said DOH is waiting for EPA to complete its hazardous removal phase and plans to go in soon thereafter to do testing.

EPA spokesman Harris-Bishop said in an email that DOH doesn’t have to wait for EPA to finish.

“We see no conflict with them conducting their sampling efforts concurrently with our work.”

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

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation, Atherton Family Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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