HONOLULU (KHON2) — With re-entry set to begin in the days ahead, there are concerns about the presence of toxic chemicals.
How safe is it for people to go back to their burned properties? An expert said if folks don’t have the proper equipment they could face serious health risks down the road.
Monday, Sept. 25 is designated by Maui County as the first day of re-entry for residents to be escorted into burn zones.
“I need to go back, we need we need to see,” said Lahaina resident Earl Thompson.
Thompson, who lost his home and his art studio to the fire, has been waiting, like thousands of others, for the opportunity to see it for himself.
“We know 99.9% of our stuff is completely gone. But yeah, we need to get back in there. And we need to dig through that and get the closure on it,” he explained.
But going into the burn zone, sifting through rubble and ash poses serious health risks.
Warnings of the hazards are posted on the Maui Recovers website.
Dr. Craig Downs, executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory and an expert in environmental forensics and hazardous material events, said the county and state are correct in cautioning residents about going in.
He said the ash people will be digging into is carcinogenic and those toxins may even be present three inches down into the soil and dirt. Sifting through debris kicks it into the air.
“And so when people go in there, they really need to be wearing protective equipment, just like the search and rescue operators did,” said Downs.
He warned that N95, COVID-type masks and latex or leather gloves will not provide adequate protection.
“That means using a respirator that is a P100 and an organic vapor cartridge,” he explained. “And you compliant chemical gloves, chemical boots so that you don’t get transfer of those chemicals through your skin.”
In a statement, the Maui Joint Information Center said:
“It is important to note that the County is not providing PPE to the public, but offers recommendations on safety measures when returning to property. This can be found on the Mauirecovers.org site. PPE items have been donated, and kits are being assembled by local volunteer organizations. These kits will be made available when people register for their entry passes.”
Downs said if the PPE doesn’t provide the necessary protection — don’t wear it. Adequate gear may cost more but it’s worth it.
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“Our goal here is to protect against the Lahaina 2030 cancer cluster,” said Downs.