Nearly 75% of Wildfire survey participants have breathing problems

A University of Hawaii study examining the health effects of last year's deadly wildfires on Maui found that up to 74% of participants may have difficulty breathing and otherwise poor respiratory health, and nearly half showed signs of impaired lung function .

The data, collected in January and February from 679 people, comes from a long-term study of wildfire survivors that researchers hope will last at least a decade. The researchers published initial results of this research last week. They hope to eventually include 2,000 people in their study to create a so-called snapshot of the estimated 10,000 people affected by the fires.

Dr. Alika Maunakea, one of the researchers and a professor at the university's John A. Burns School of Medicine, said those who reported higher exposure to the wildfire tended to have more symptoms.

Many study participants did not seek medical attention, he said. Some study participants said they were unable to do so because clinics burned down or because they prioritized obtaining housing, jobs and food after the disaster. Maunakea urged people exposed to the wildfires to get checked out.

“There could be some issues that could manifest themselves in the future,” he said. “Please go to your doctor. So just pay more attention to your health.”

Two-thirds of the study participants lived in Lahaina at the time of the fires. About half of participants reported daily or weekly exposure to smoke, ash or debris.

The Aug. 8 fire killed at least 101 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century. It burned thousands of buildings, displaced 12,000 residents and destroyed Maui's historic town.

The report shows that Maui does not have enough lung health specialists to care for those who need that expertise, said Ruben Juarez, a professor of health economics at the university and one of the study's leaders. Researchers are talking to Hawaii's congressional delegation to figure out how to bring these resources to Maui, he said.

Maunakea said researchers want to avoid the higher cancer and mortality rates seen 20 years later among people affected by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“We will hopefully be able to prevent this tragedy from worsening into higher mortality rates in the future, as we have seen with other events such as 9/11,” Maunakea said.

Gopal Allada, an associate professor of medicine specializing in pulmonary and critical care medicine at Oregon Science & Health University who was not involved in the research, said it would have been great if study participants had had similar pulmonary function tests before fire. However, he acknowledged that this was not possible, as is often the case in similar studies.

He hopes that over time the researchers will receive funding to continue their research.

Allada noted that most scientific studies on the health effects of wildfires have focused on what happens to people in the days and week of exposure, and that less is known about the long-term effects.

He praised the researchers for showing there is a problem and for collecting data that can influence policymakers.

“This is important work that will hopefully have an impact on policymakers and people who control the budgets and where trainees are trained and things like that,” he said.


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