As West Maui kids head back to class, toxins found in ash prompt new fears for Lahaina

As three schools reopen this week -- the new test results are shaking confidence that kids are safe.
Published: Oct. 16, 2023 at 6:19 PM HST|Updated: Oct. 16, 2023 at 6:46 PM HST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - News that ash from the Kula fires contains higher than expected levels of arsenic and other dangerous metals is causing alarm in Lahaina.

As three Lahaina schools reopen this week, the new test results are also shaking confidence that kids are safe.

Air monitors have consistently indicated that ash is not reaching schools from the burn zone.

But the Department of Health is showing increasing concerns about toxins — even warning people that they should back off a practice that has brought many people comfort.

Aided by well-equipped volunteers, ash has been sifted to search for valuables and mementoes at many homes. The Health Department is now discouraging sifting after tests of Kula ash confirmed the presence of toxins at higher levels than expected.

Special Section: Maui Wildfires Disaster

State Health Director Dr. Kenneth Fink said the arsenic level prompted a rare public advisory — delivered over the weekend in a briefing with reporters. “The arsenic, which is the greatest concern, is 140 times above the environmental action level,” Fink said.

Arsenic at more than 3,000 milligrams per kilogram was likely due to termite-treated wood used to build homes. Lead was at twice the safe level and cobalt 20 times above it.

DOH urges precautions after high levels of arsenic, lead found in Kula ash samples

Similar or even higher levels can be expected in Lahaina, officials and experts said.

With three schools east of the burn zones opening this week, schools Superintendent Keith Hayashi reassured families on Sunday that air is being continuously monitored.

“So if in the event we do need to utilize them those filters filter air particulates out in the classrooms,” Hayashi said.

But the reassurances weren’t enough for everyone, especially after Department of Health Maui County Health officer Lorrin Pang said children should be asked about scratchy throats.

“I would like to ask that of the schoolchildren,” Pang said. “If I don’t cross political boundaries.”

West Maui Council Member Tamara Paltin interrupted him to say, “Oh, I am not sending my kids back. I’m not gonna do it.”

While Pang pointed out that monitors have shown the air to be consistently safe around schools, he also cast doubt about whether more testing should be done on dust that may have traveled from the burn zone.

“The other kind of sample you can do is pull it out from the air, catch everything onto a filter paper. It’s called the sniffer. So, I asked for that,” Pang said.

it also didn’t seem clear to Pang whether ash samples from Lahaina were being tested.

“I kind of don’t know what meetings to attend. It’s a little bit confusing; who’s doing what.” Pang said. “I can barely get my PPE in order to give away. It’s a little bit confusing.”

Council Member Gabe Johnson responded, “So we are waiting for ash and yet our kids are going to school? That’s concerning.”

Many attending the meeting, like health worker Mary Ann Kanaha of East Maui, saw the test results as a chilling reminder about proper PPE.

“When I see you know, politicians that’s in the area and they’re not wearing PPE. Not a good example for the community,” Kahana said.

“You don’t know what’s in the air you can’t see it but you’re breathing it.”

The Health Director said it’s even more urgent now to get soil sealant sprayed in Lahaina.

It will also be doubly important to control the dust when crews begin to remove and transport rubble from Lahaina to a still unidentified disposal site.