HONOLULU (KHON2) — The State Health Department said extremely high levels of arsenic and other chemicals have been detected in the ash after samples were taken from eight homes that burned in Kula.
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The state said the samples were taken on September 21 and the preliminary results came back Friday evening. On Sunday, the DOE and DOH wanted Lahaina and Upcountry residents to know what was found.
“Those homes ranged in age from about the 1930s to the 2000s,” explained Dr. Kenneth Fink, Hawaii State Health Director. “Those results did indicate exceedances of high levels of lead and cobalt and extremely high levels of arsenic.”
Dr. Fink said similar toxins are likely to be found around Lahaina and wants residents to be aware, especially those getting ready to go back to school this week.
“The presence of those substances is not surprising but the concentrations are indeed high,” Dr. Fink said. “The arsenic, which is the greatest concern, is 140 times above the environmental action level.”
He said the heavy metal was likely from construction materials that burned.
“For people who are going in to the impacted zone and having direct exposure to the ash that’s the greatest risk, ingestion of the ash would be the potential greatest exposure,” he explained.
The DOH said its important for people to wear proper protective equipment while in the burn zone or when they re-enter their homes. Dr. Fink said minimizing ash movement is important too and pregnant women and children should not be entering the burned areas.
Air monitors have been set up around Lahaina and Upcountry to monitor the air quality.
Soiltac was also applied around homes near Kelawea to prevent the ash from moving as the DOE said it will continue on with classes this week.
“We’ve been reassured that the likelihood that the conditions at schools will become harmful in the near future is very low,” explained Keith Hayashi, Superintendent, Hawaii Department of Education.
He said the DOE has revamped its health guidance with the test results announced by the DOH on Sunday, and said student absences the first week will be flexible as families make decisions on whether to send their kids back to school knowing the Kula test results.
“We’ve been reassured that our Lahaina campuses are safe for students and staff based on current air quality conditions, and the extensive environmental testing we’ve done over the last several weeks,” he said. The DOE said air, soil and water testing have all been done and no ash was detected within the school. He added all campuses have been deep cleaned too.
“We strongly believe that reopening for in person learning is important and we’re doing everything that we can do to make it as safe as possible and have put plans in place to take necessary actions if and when conditions change,” he said.
Should wind conditions pick up while school is in session he said the following will be monitored with the air quality monitors:
Green means good air quality
Orange means schools will close doors and windows, turn off air conditioners, turn on HEPA filters, and outdoor activities will be suspended.
Red means distance learning plans will be discussed.
Purple, which is the most extreme, means students and teachers will shelter in place if school is in session, or will be notified ahead of time if school is not in session.
Air quality monitors can be seen in real time by clicking here.
For people living near burned properties, the health department recommends washing hands often and cleaning countertops.
DOH urges individuals returning to impacted areas for temporary visits to follow re-entry guidance.
- DOH strongly recommends that the County of Maui cease the use of sifters in areas next to inhabited areas during Lahaina re-entry visits, as the sifters cause ash to become airborne.
- DOH strongly recommends use of personal protective equipment when in impacted areas.
- Children and pregnant people absolutely should not enter impacted areas.
- Do not eat in impacted areas. Ensure that the spout or top of your water bottle is covered and protected from dust.
- Any objects removed from the impacted area must be immediately washed with soap and water.
- DOH strongly recommends people consider the risk of re-entry and thoughtfully decide if the risk of exposure to these contaminants is worth the benefit for them.
- DOH strongly recommends people limit their time in the re-entry zone as much as possible.
DOH continues to work with the Department of Education (DOE) to assess risk at West Maui Schools as well as with Maui County and other partners to assess risk and take steps to minimize those risks.
“The Department of Education continues to strongly believe that reopening our Lāhainā schools for in-person learning is critical for the well-being of our students and the community. We have been reassured that our campuses are safe for students and staff to be at based on current air quality conditions and the extensive environmental testing we’ve done over the last several weeks,” DOE Superintendent Keith Hayashi said.
“We have revised our school safety guidelines to be extra cautious if the air monitors pick up particles in the air and we will continue to work closely with DOH to regularly test and monitor conditions at the schools. While our plans to reopen the Lahaina schools to students starting tomorrow remain unchanged, we understand families will need to take in this new information, process what it means, and make decisions that are best for their situation and their ‘ohana. Our schools will be flexible on student absences during this first week of reopening as families make decisions.”
Soiltac, was applied to impacted areas near Lāhainā schools, which adds an additional layer of protection to keep dust and ash from becoming airborne. DOH also recommended that DOE follow its updated guidance to limit outdoor activities and assess if further action needs to be taken if real-time air monitors indicate AQI over 50.
DOH and EPA installed real-time air monitors at West Maui schools and between the schools and the impacted area. DOE has assigned staff to monitor air quality at Lāhainā schools. In addition, extensive environmental testing at the schools conducted by DOH and DOE has not shown evidence of any transportation of ash or these contaminants from the impacted areas.
Soil testing from all three Lahaina schools did not show levels of arsenic or lead beyond background levels and wipe samples of school surfaces did not detect lead or arsenic. DOE will continue to do bi-weekly wipe sampling on indoor and outdoor surfaces at the schools to monitor for any transport of these contaminants from the impacted areas.
It is important to note that the data available has not yet been validated and final results may vary. This means the currently available data is preliminary and has not been double checked by the lab or quality tested by an independent third party. The final testing results may be different. That validation process is ongoing and may take several weeks; the validated results will be shared as soon as they are available.
Lead is a heavy metal that is expected to be present in ash due its use in paint on houses built before 1978. Lead is particularly toxic for young children and babies in utero as it hinders the development of the brain. Babies and children exposed to lead have trouble with learning, school performance, attention, and other neurocognitive problems. Lead levels in the ash were high and pose a health risk to children and pregnant women who are exposed to ash and dust from the burned areas.
Arsenic is a heavy metal found in soils in Hawaii due to volcanic soils and its use as an herbicide in the early 1900s. It is also found in building materials made of sugar cane (Canec) and wood treated for termite control (CCA treated wood). Arsenic can also be found in food such as rice, meats, fish and seaweed and has also been found to be naturally occuring in well water around the world. Long-term, environmental exposure to arsenic can cause skin problems, heart problems and cancers of the skin, bladder and lungs. Levels of arsenic in the ash were very high and pose a potential health risk to people with exposure to the ash.
Cobalt is a naturally occurring element that is essential for certain functions of the body including the generation of red blood cells. People are exposed to small amounts of cobalt in food, industrial air pollution, and many cosmetics. However, when people are exposed to excessive amounts of cobalt, it can cause problems with the blood, lungs and skin. Cobalt may also cause cancer with extreme exposures.
Organochlorine pesticides used historically in Hawaii such as chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, heptachlor and related chemicals were not detected in the ash.
DOH continues to analyze the results to assess any potential risks from other contaminants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), Dioxins, and others.