Maui wildfire leaves behind “toxic air” that locals fear will affect their health for years to come

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Weeks after a devastating wildfire ripped across the historic Maui town of Lahaina, residents are working to pick up the pieces of their homes’ and businesses’ remains. But the threat of the wildfire isn’t over just yet – now, they’re facing “toxic air.” 

Wildfire smoke is known to cause a range of health issues, most notably breathing issues. But when they burn through cities, the flames also burn up industrial items, buildings, cars and a slew of other things that can release toxic chemicals. 

According to the state’s Department of Health, “toxic contaminants present in debris and ash” remain a top hazard concern in Lahaina, as do other heavy metals and chemicals that may be in the ashen remains of the city, such as asbestos. Diana Felton, the state toxicologist, previously told Hawai’i Public Radio that “it’s going to be a long time” before all of the toxic materials are cleaned up. 

Ash and debris-filled areas “should be approached very carefully, very cautiously,” Felton told the station, saying many of the city’s older buildings may have had lead paint or asbestos, both of which can be detrimental to health if inhaled or touched. 

“You don’t really want to be exposed to any of this stuff,” Felton said.

The EPA is currently working to remove hazardous materials from the area, a process that consists of two phases. The agency says it will remove paints, cleaners, solvents, batteries and other items, as well as asbestos and pressurized fuel cylinders like propane tanks. Those items “will be safely collected and disposed of in a special facility off-island,” the agency says. 

Maui County Councilmember Tamara Paltin, who chairs the Disaster, Resilience, International Affairs, and Planning Committee, said she believes “it’s toxic.” 

“The arsenic, the asbestos, the lead. Close to the burnt zone, we’ve heard from volunteers having adverse effects,” she said. “One lady I had heard was coughing up blood after being there a number of days.” 

Kiley Adolpho is one local resident who felt some of the impacts. She said that one area where many evacuations took place, known as the Red Zone, left a “burning feeling in the chest” and throat. 

“I definitely need to use a respirator,” Adolpho said. “It protects you from dust, fine particles, but not the toxic air. And I’ve been here for two weeks now.” 

According to the CDC, wildfire ash can irritate the eyes, nose, skin and other parts of the body. Children and those with asthma, COPD or heart disease are particularly vulnerable, as are those who are pregnant. The department says that those in ashen areas should wear respirators to prevent the most effects. 

Another resident, Kekoa Lansford, said he also experienced respiratory issues from the wildfire. 

“I couldn’t breathe very good,” he said. “And for a few days after I kept coughing up black stuff and nasty stuff.” 

And it’s a problem that Adolpho thinks won’t go away anytime soon. 

“Come back 20 years later, 10 years later,” she said, “and you’ll see how many native people are sick.” 

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