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The burn zone on Maui is laden with toxins, officials say

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The burn zone in Lahaina remains closed off as officials undertake search and recovery. But shortly after the fire, some residents of Lahaina were able to see what was left of their homes. Anthony La Puente II found his home reduced to a field of ash. He says the sight was shocking as well as the smell.

ANTHONY LA PUENTE: You smell a lot of wood, camping type of wood, but also a lot of, like, chemical smells. If anybody's ever been around, like, a burning tire or gas, you can kind of get a hint.

CHANG: Those chemical odors are one sign of how toxic the entire burn area is, even after the flames have been extinguished. NPR's Gabriel Spitzer is on Maui and has been talking with experts about the risks. Hi, Gabriel.

GABRIEL SPITZER, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So tell us. How critical of a concern are these toxic contaminants right now in the burn zone?

SPITZER: Yeah, they're a major concern here, and they're one of the reasons why getting people back into Lahaina has gone so slowly. One factor in this is just how hot the fire burned. Hawaii's governor said it reached a thousand degrees.

CHANG: Wow.

SPITZER: So something that's that hot is not going to burn just wood but also things like asphalt and insulation and plumbing, and that's in addition to all this plastic and rubber and carpet.

CHANG: And what happens when those kinds of materials burn?

SPITZER: There's a really big concern about asbestos and lead because much of Lahaina was built more than 50 years ago, before we stopped using that stuff in our buildings. And there are more nasty chemicals in the smoke from these urban wildfires. I spoke with Amara Holder with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and she's done research into what's in the smoke from urban wildfires versus some that mostly burn trees.

AMARA HOLDER: We expect to see much higher amounts of compounds like chlorine and nitrogen and metals like lead and arsenic and cadmium. We would expect greater amounts of gases like hydrogen chloride or hydrogen cyanide to be emitted from these types of fires than you would see from a regular old forest fire.

CHANG: And how dangerous are those compounds? Like, could people be harmed just by, say, touching the contaminated ash?

SPITZER: Yeah, well, the biggest danger comes from ingesting or breathing in the toxic chemicals. So that means that the really acute risks go way down once the fire's out and the smoke has dissipated. But lots of the emissions that start out as airborne particles in smoke end up settling back down into ash and soot, and they cling to surfaces. They run off into the water. And that means people could be exposed over and over for a really long time, which is exactly what health officials are worried about. A lot of these chemicals are associated with cancer and lung disease. And heavy metals like lead and arsenic can cause heart disease and neurological problems, too.

CHANG: And how do you go about cleaning all of that up?

SPITZER: Well, it's going to be a huge job. That ash, which blankets everything in Lahaina and a lot of the soil that it's sitting on, might have to be treated as hazardous waste, which could mean packing it into steel drums and shipping it off island for special storage.

CHANG: I mean, my God. That sounds like it could take a really long time. And I imagine that must be frustrating for residents who want to go and see what's left.

SPITZER: Yeah, I asked Diana Felton about this. She's the former Hawaii state toxicologist who's now part of leadership at the State Department of Health. And she says the burn zone is off limits for good reasons.

DIANA FELTON: We completely understand people's urge, and it really is a need to get back and see what has become of their homes or their businesses. But also, there is no room for more illness and injury related to this event.

SPITZER: She said eventually residents will be able to be in the burn area safely once cleanup has made some progress and with proper gear, but she says that's still a ways off.

CHANG: We've been speaking with NPR's Gabriel Spitzer. Thank you, Gabriel.

SPITZER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Gabriel Spitzer
Gabriel Spitzer (he/him) is Senior Editor of Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. He comes to NPR following years of experience at Member stations – most recently at KNKX in Seattle, where he covered science and health and then co-founded and hosted the weekly show Sound Effect. That show told character-driven stories of the region's people. When the Pacific Northwest became the first place in the U.S. hit by COVID-19, the show switched gears and relaunched as Transmission, one of the country's first podcasts about the pandemic.