weeks after aIn the historic town of Lahaina, Maui, residents work to collect the remains of their homes and businesses. But the threat of wildfire isn't over – now they're faced with ‘toxic air'.
Smoke from wildfires is known to cause a number of health problems, most notably respiratory problems. But as they burn through cities, the flames also incinerate industrial items, buildings, cars, and a host of other things that can release toxic chemicals.
According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, “toxic contaminants remain in debris and ash.” greatest risk of danger in Lahaina, as well as other heavy metals and chemicals that may be found in the city's ashes, such as asbestos. Diana Felton, the state toxicologist, previously said Hawaii Public Radio that “it will take a long time” to eliminate all toxic materials.
Areas filled with ash and debris “should be approached very carefully and very carefully,” Felton told the station, saying many of the city's older buildings may have contained lead paint or asbestos, both of which can be harmful if inhaled or touched.
“You really don't want to be exposed to that stuff,” Felton said.
The EPA is currently working on it Remove hazardous materials from the area, a process that consists of two phases. The agency says it will remove paint, cleaners, solvents, batteries and other items, as well as asbestos and pressurized fuel bottles like propane tanks. These items “will be safely collected and disposed of at a dedicated facility off the island,” the agency says.
Maui County Councilor Tamara Paltin, chair of the Committee on Disasters, Resilience, International Affairs and Planning, said she believes “it's toxic.”
“The arsenic, the asbestos, the lead. Near the burned zone, we heard from volunteers who had adverse effects,” she said. “A lady I heard was coughing up blood after a few days there.”
Kiley Adolpho is one of the residents who felt some of the effects. She said one area where many evacuations took place, known as the red zone, left a “burning sensation in the chest” and throat.
“I absolutely have to use a respirator,” Adolpho said. “It protects you from dust and particulate matter, but not from the toxic air. And I've been here for two weeks now.”
According to the CDCForest fire ash can irritate eyes, nose, skin and other parts of the body. Children and people with asthma, COPD or heart disease are particularly at risk, as are pregnant women. The department says people in ashen areas should wear respirators to prevent most impacts.
Another local resident, Kekoa Lansford, said he also had breathing problems due to the wildfire.
“I couldn't breathe properly,” he said. “And for a few days I kept coughing up black and nasty stuff.”
And it's a problem that Adolpho believes won't go away anytime soon.
“Come back 20 years later, 10 years later,” she said, “and you'll see how many local people are sick.”