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Last-Minute Bill Introduced To Support Long-Term Maui Wildfire Exposure Study

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Last-Minute Bill Introduced To Support Long-Term Maui Wildfire Exposure Study

Jan 25, 2024 | 1:18 pm ET
By Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat
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The fires left only rubble and ash in much of Lahaina’s place, but the long-term health effects of exposure to the fires is yet to be fully realized. Researchers want to understand what the true scope of symptoms may be. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)
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The fires left only rubble and ash in much of Lahaina’s place, but the long-term health effects of exposure to the fires is yet to be fully realized. Researchers want to understand what the true scope of symptoms may be. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

University of Hawaii researchers are recruiting participants and garnering political support for a wildfire exposure study aimed at understanding the immediate and long-term health effects Maui residents face in the aftermath of the Aug. 8 fires.

Their endgame is to address the immediate needs of the community as well as gather data to inform the development of a blueprint for how to better respond to future crises, especially geared towards disaster-affected communities’ health and well-being.

Time is of the essence for the 10-year Maui Wildfire Exposure Study, lead researchers told lawmakers on Wednesday. They have already recruited 200 people to participate in the study but want to double the pool of participants to 2,000 and double the study’s duration to beef up their data.

The research caught lawmakers’ attention and prompted the introduction of legislation to help support the work just before Wednesday’s cutoff to introduce bills this session, which opened last week and runs through early May.

The urgency to get research underway is born out of lessons from previous disasters where latent health problems were discovered too late, according to Dr. Alika Maunakea of the John A. Burns School of Medicine at UH.

“We learned lessons from 9/11, (with) the huge delay in responding and identifying those risks,” Maunakea told the House Committee on Health and Homelessness. “We didn’t know until years later that the aftermath of that tragedy had an impact on cancer risk.”

The research aims to create a more nuanced understanding of participants’ health outcomes and wellbeing and their contributing factors. To do that they will collect data on food security, employment, housing stability, social support and demographics.

The data will be analyzed by the UH Economic Research Organization, given its experience during the pandemic gathering data to better serve public health programs statewide.

“This project is really kind of an extension of what we learned during the pandemic, which was that we simply don’t have the data that we need every time there’s an emergency or a disaster,” UHERO Executive Director Carl Bonham said.

Anonymized data will also be available to the public as part of a dashboard system on the study’s website, while participants would have access to their own health metrics.

The current level of funding for the project allows for 1,000 participants at annual cost of $1,000 each. That money comes from the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Maui Strong Fund.

Community feedback has spurred researchers to try to double their participant pool to include children, first responders and volunteers, as it is currently focused only on adults.

“That isn’t because of lack of interest, of course, but really the limitation is funding,” UHERO professor Ruben Juarez said.

Juarez, an economics professor focused on health, said that 70% of the per-person funding would be funneled back into the community, through participant compensation, support for community organizations and medical tests.

Lawmakers are listening, foreseeing high demand for a study they anticipate could help mitigate negative health outcomes in the future.

Rep. Della Au Belatti has introduced a bill to help expand the study.

“Do I wish that we could fund up to 2,000? For sure. But this is a longitudinal study,” Belatti said in an interview. “If we can braid all the resources we have, I think we can get the products we need.”

The House health committee chair said she had been in touch with Congresswoman Jill Tokuda, who co-chairs the bipartisan Rural Health Caucus, and was hopeful that Tokuda and the congressional delegation could leverage federal funding for the study.

Residents’ long-term health was a concern that “fell through the cracks” in the wake of the fire, Belatti said, and was not included as a subject within the six House interim working groups formed in September to probe issues related to the Aug. 8 fires.

“It was no one’s fault but as we study disasters from community to community, when you talk to the people who are still working and living there, they really call it a human services disaster,” Belatti said.

The study will currently take participants who are at least 18 years old, who resided or worked in a wildfire-affected area in August and who expect to remain in Hawaii for five years. Participants will be tested annually over the next five to 10 years, possibly longer.

Qualifying participants that take part in the study will receive up to $100 and will be subject to various health tests, such as measuring of weight and height, and sampling of blood, saliva and urine.

Researchers will host recruitment events over the course of the next three weeks, starting Friday at J. Walter Cameron Center, followed by Saturday at Royal Lahaina Resort. Next month, recruitment events will be held Feb. 2-3 and Feb. 9-10 at Royal Lahaina Resort.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation, Atherton Family Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.