What impact do wildfires have on people's health? Report on Hawaii disaster sheds light on effects

A man views the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, August 19, 2023.
A man views the aftermath of a wildfire in Lahaina, Hawaii, August 19, 2023. Copyright Jae C. Hong/AP Photo
Copyright Jae C. Hong/AP Photo
By Euronews with AP
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The wildfire in Hawaii began on August 8, 2023, and killed more than 100 people. A new preliminary report looks at how it impacted people's health.

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How did deadly wildfires in Hawaii last year impact people's health?

A new study found that nearly half of people in Maui affected by the fires "experienced a decline in health," compared to a year ago.

Roughly 74 per cent of study participants had poor respiratory health or elevated risk for cardiovascular disease due to hypertension. 

The University of Hawaii study looked at 679 people as part of ongoing research into the impact of the fires on health. More than half of the participants lived in the fire perimeter area.

A report with early results from the study was released this week. Participants answer questions about their health and have data collected.

The study found that nearly half of the participants had "signs of mild to severe lung obstruction," and 39 per cent had compromised lung function.

Researchers hope to enrol 2,000 people in the study to have a snapshot of the estimated 10,000 people affected by the fires.

Access to medical care

The report found that more than four in 10 people had trouble accessing medical care compared to one in ten before the fires.

Some study participants said they were not able to get medical care because clinics had burned down or because they prioritised getting housing, jobs, and food after the disaster.

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.

Maunakea urged people exposed to the wildfires to get checked.

"There might be some problems that might manifest in the future," he said. "Please see your doctor. Just pay more attention to your health because of this".

They also found disparities in health insurance coverage with more than 13 per cent of participants uninsured.

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

The wildfire started on August 8, 2023, and killed at least 101 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in the US in more than a century. It burned thousands of buildings, displaced 12,000 residents and destroyed the historic town on Maui.

The survey found an increase in depression compared to before the fires as well, with more than half of participants showing symptoms.

Roughly 30 per cent of study participants reported symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety.

'Important work'

Dr Gopal Allada, an associate professor of medicine specialising in pulmonary and critical care at the Oregon Science & Health University who wasn't involved in the research, said it would have been great if the study participants had undergone similar lung function tests before the fire.

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But he acknowledged that wasn't possible, as is often the case in similar studies.

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

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

He commended the researchers for showing there is a problem, and for collecting data that could influence policymakers.

"This is important work that hopefully influences policymakers and people who control budgets and where trainees train and that sort of thing," he said.

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