Toxic Particles From Lahaina Fire May Take Months to Clean

According to state health experts, removing harmful chemicals from the Lahaina fire will take weeks, if not months.

State toxicologist Diana Felton predicted that the process would take a while. Per Felton, teams headed by the Environmental Protection Agency will work to clear the area of apparent risks, like propane tanks, over the following two weeks.

She cautioned that the clean up includes several harmful chemicals and that most of the ash and debris will take considerably longer to remove.

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Since the town of Lahaina was established well before the 1970s, it is likely that many of its older structures had lead paint or asbestos. These substances may still be present in the trash and may come into touch with the skin or be inhaled.

Felton said, "You don't really want to be exposed to any of this stuff."

Additionally, Maui County issued a water alert for upper Kula and Lahaina on August 12. Even though the water has been boiled, officials caution that drinking tap water in wildfire-affected areas is now dangerous. According to Felton, the water will be usable long-term, but "in the short term, we just need more information."

According to the state Department of Health's Safe Drinking Water Branch, the West Maui drinking water will be tested. After a calamity, "strange things can happen to the water," Felton added.

I'm optimistic that the water system will be able to be restored, but we won't have a timeframe on that until we have a better understanding of how much contamination is present.

- Felton

The Department of Health is getting many of its cues on cleanup from authorities of other cities that have dealt with wildfires and federal organizations like the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control.

On August 12, West Maui residents have access to some portions of Lahaina due to Maui County. Since the flames started earlier this week, it was many evacuees' first opportunity to revisit the neighborhood. But shortly after hearing reports of people accessing the blocked area of the damaged Lahaina town, the Maui Police Department closed down entry.

The area has been designated by Mayor Bissen as an authorized personnel area only, according to the Military Personnel Division (MPD), and anyone found within will be taken out and may be arrested.

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Felton advised people to cover up as much as they could to keep safe, including closed-toe shoes, slacks, long-sleeve shirts, gloves, and goggles if they could. She advised using a well-fitted mask to prevent respiratory risks. A surgical mask will also protect you from ash, although an N95 is recommended.

The Department of Health recommends these rules to stay safe:

  • Keep kids away; they shouldn't participate in cleanup activities or play in places with ash or debris.
  • Wearing gloves, long sleeve shirts, long pants, and closed-toed shoes will help you and others to be protected.
  • Ash should be avoided since it may irritate the skin, nose, and throat and induce coughing.
  • Asbestos, arsenic, and lead are just a few of the poisonous and cancer-causing substances that may be found in ash and dust, especially from destroyed structures.
  • Remain hydrated and avoid heat stress.
  • Any salvageable items should be properly cleansed in clean water and soap.

Maui County reopened west Maui to locals on the 12th, with traffic diverted through Waihee. The Lahaina wildfire disaster area is still blocked, according to a statement released by officials on the same day.

"People are required to stay out of the area, where search and rescue operations are underway and there are possible hazards, including toxic particles from smoldering areas," reads the statement.

Anyone who enters the disaster region is guilty of a misdemeanor felony, which carries a maximum one-year prison sentence and a $2,000 fine.

Felton concluded, "We don't need any more illnesses or injuries than have already resulted from this dreadful occurrence."

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