What To Know About The Potential Health Risks Of The Maui Fires—From Birth Defects To Cancer


As the Maui fires that devastated Hawaii still burn, health officials released guidance about water usage and potential chemicals in the air, which can lead to certain cancers, birth defects, brain damage and kidney and liver damage.

Key Facts

The Hawaii State Health Department released a warning about potentially hazardous particles in the fire’s ash and dust, including asbestos, lead, arsenic and volatile organic compounds.

The fires have been burning since August 8 on the island of Maui, killing 99 people as of Monday—it has been labeled the deadliest natural disaster in Hawaiian history.

Since many of the buildings in the historic city were built before the 1970s—when the adverse effects of asbestos and lead were discovered and their use in buildings waned—the buildings set ablaze last week might have contained these chemicals, per the state.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) may be released into the air when materials like metal, rubber and plastic are burned, but they’re also found in everyday materials like disinfectants, cosmetics, carbonless copy paper, paint and permanent markers.

The Health Department additionally said as fires burn soil, they may also release arsenic in the air, because the chemical was used as an herbicide in the state for things like sugar cane plantations and golf courses.

To keep safe, the state’s health department recommends people who have been allowed to return to their homes or businesses in Lahaina to use N95 or NIOSH masks, gloves, sunscreen, goggles, socks, pants, closed-toe shoes and long sleeves to protect from the ash.

The state also advised citizens living in Lahaina and Upper Kula to not drink, use or boil tap water, to avoid baths and pools, to wash clothes in cold water and to take quick showers because the water may contain benzene or other volatile organic compounds.

Key Background

VOCs are harmful gasses that are emitted into the air via products or processes, according to the American Lung Association, with the most common ones being benzene, formaldehyde and toluene. Some VOCs are known to cause certain cancers: Formaldehyde can cause leukemia and cancer of the nose and throat, benzene can cause leukemia, especially acute myelogenic leukemia, chloroform can cause cancer of the kidney, liver bladder and intestine, trichloroethylene (TCE) can cause kidney cancer and naphthalene can cause throat cancer. Safe exposure limits differ for each VOC—the Gillings School of Global Public Health reports exposure to formaldehyde between 0.7 and 15.2 parts per million can cause cancer and 10 parts per billion of benzene in drinking water or 0.4 parts per billion in the air could be carcinogenic. When pregnant people are exposed to VOCs, birth defects may arise, like low birth weight and premature births, a study published in Pediatric Research reports. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breathing in asbestos may cause lung cancer, mesothelioma, cancers of the ovaries, stomach, colorectum, larynx and pharynx, asbestosis (scarring in the lungs caused by asbestos that makes breathing difficult) and pleural disease—a non-cancerous lung condition that causes the lung membrane to thicken and fluid to build up. No amount of asbestos exposure is safe, according to the Minnesota Department of Health, but the more someone’s exposed to it, the more likely they are to develop an asbestos-related disease. Lead exposure in children is known to cause brain and nervous system damage, lowered IQ, headaches, slowed growth, hearing problems and learning and behavioral disabilities, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In adults, it can lead to hypertension and high blood pressure, memory and concentration issues, muscle and joint pain, reproductive problems and nerve disorders. The World Health Organization lists a blood lead level of five micrograms per decilitre or greater as cause for concern. Exposure to low levels of arsenic can cause kidney and liver damage, a shortage of red and white blood cells and skin changes—exposure to high amounts can be fatal. The fatal human dose for arsenic is 70 to 180 milligrams, according to the CDC.


According to a 2021 study published in Lancet Planetary Health, exposure to pollution from wildfires causes tens of thousands of deaths worldwide each year. The U.S. ranked as one of the top countries with wildfire pollution-related deaths, totaling 3,200 annual deaths in 210 cities. Japan had the most deaths, with a total of 7,000 each year in 47 cities. Researchers found fine particulate matter to be the most concerning pollutant, as it’s responsible for over 300,000 deaths each year, including 7,000 heart-related deaths and 3,500 respiratory-related deaths. According to the CDC, fine particles are the most dangerous form of particle pollution because, when inhaled, they can creep deep into the lungs and bloodstream. They’re known for causing chronic lung cancer and severe asthma in both adults and children, according to data from a study published in the journal of Chronic Diseases and Translational Medicine.

Further Reading

Wildfire Pollution Kills Thousands Of Americans Each Year, Study Finds (Forbes)

Maui Wildfire Becomes Deadliest U.S. Blaze In Over A Century—Surpassing These Other Fires (Forbes)

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