Health and environmental impacts of Maui wildfires explained

November 7, 2023

Public health experts from the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa provided insights into the health and environmental repercussions of the August 8 Maui wildfires during a webinar.

The presentation aimed at educating Hawaiian healthcare professionals about potential risks and protective measures.

Addressing Maui wildfire health concerns

During the briefing titled “Environmental Health Impacts of the Maui Wildfires,” associate specialist Rosana Hernandez Weldon expressed the urgency of the situation: “Given the unprecedented nature of the environmental health risks faced by those affected by the Maui wildfires, our aim was to address some questions that have been circulating in the community and in the media, particularly related to toxic compounds, and most importantly, help spread messaging from the health authorities about health advisories and how to protect oneself from potential exposures.”

Associate professor Catherine Pirkle highlighted the rarity of such events in connection with hurricanes, saying, “While there have been large urban fires in other locations, such as Paradise, California, few have been related to hurricanes. This is relatively a unique concern.”

Understanding exposure and prevention

The discussion led by Pirkle and Weldon covered how wildfires could affect human health, emphasizing sensitive populations such as pregnant women, children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing health conditions.

They compared the potential long-term and low-dose exposure scenarios in Lahaina with previous studies’ high, acute exposure settings.

They remarked on the complexity of chemical mixtures from environmental exposures and the preliminary but optimistic findings regarding air quality and drinking water contamination.

Their advice for those entering burned areas is specific: “Individuals who plan to enter burned areas should protect themselves by wearing: a good fitting mask, preferably an N95-type mask; long sleeves; pants; socks; shoes; and gloves.

“Do not eat while in the impacted area, but be sure to stay hydrated.

“Minimize disturbing the ash that has settled on the ground so that it does not enter the air or nearby waters.”

Moreover, they suggested that individuals should change their clothing before rejoining family members to minimize secondary exposure.

Pirkle warned about the broader environmental implications of the wildfires, especially concerning marine life: “The fire occurred in an area with nearshore tropical reefs. This is important for considering long-term environmental exposures to wildlife and people.

“There are important concerns about contaminants released by the fire entering the marine environment, including risks from recreational activities such as swimming to the consumption of contaminated fish.”

FSJA Comment

The briefing from the University of Hawai’i shines a light on the dire need for a comprehensive understanding of wildfire aftermath.

The actionable guidance provided by health experts is crucial for those living in or assisting affected areas.

With global climate issues leading to increased wildfire activity, such knowledge becomes pivotal in planning, response, and recovery efforts.

The focus on sensitive populations underscores the broader social equity aspect of disaster impact, providing a necessary lens to view and address these disasters.

The emphasis on up-to-date, evidence-based information equips healthcare professionals and the public with the tools needed for timely and effective action, signaling a move toward more informed community resilience strategies.

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