Mānoa: Health risks emerge 6 months after Maui wildfires, study finds

Mānoa: Health risks emerge 6 months after Maui wildfires, study finds

University of Hawaii at Manoa

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Mānoa: Health risks emerge 6 months after Maui wildfires, study finds
Photos are from a MauiWES recruitment event on January 27th

About half of Maui residents affected by the August wildfires say their health is worse now compared to a year ago, and more than half say they lost their jobs because of the fires. These are among the preliminary findings of the University of Hawaiʻi’s Mānoa Maui Fire Exposure Study (MauiWES) cohort. Over at least the next 10 years, the study aims to document the acute and chronic health impacts and social conditions caused by one of the deadliest and most devastating natural disasters in Hawaiʻi’s history.

View the report

Preliminary results include:

  • 49% said their health is worse than last year (before the fires)
  • 58% of the participants lost their jobs due to the fires
  • 65% are in temporary homes
  • 24% of participants remain in their homes before the fire
  • 11% have moved to new permanent homes
  • 24% remain unemployed and are searching
  • 74% report a decrease in their household income

Currently, there are 224 participants in the study and preliminary findings are based on surveys and health analyzes of these individuals. They were immediately given their preliminary results and those with abnormal levels of clinically relevant health measures were encouraged to seek professional medical attention.

The grassroots, community-based initiative aims to recruit at least 1,000 individuals affected by the fires to participate in the study. Upcoming recruitment events are February 9 and 10 at the Royal Lahaina Resort in Lahaina. Visit the website for more information and to register.

Self-reported health outcomes:

  • 49% said their health is now worse than last year (before the fires)
  • 24% reported that they do not have consistent access to medical care
  • 13% reported not having health insurance (This is much higher than last year’s survey of Maui residents, when only 1.7% reported being uninsured, which is similar to the statewide rate.)

Assessment of physical health:

  • 21.5% of group participants showed high blood pressure at the level of stage 1 and 2 hypertension, with 54.8% at prehypertension levels, indicating an overall proportion (more than 76%) of individuals at high risk for cardiovascular disease.
  • 8-18% of participants may have impaired kidney function.
  • 74% of participants may have poor respiratory health, with 49% showing signs of mild to severe lung obstruction
  • 33% with impaired lung function related to impaired tissue oxygenation.

Mental Health Assessment:

  • 55% show depressive symptoms. This is significantly higher than the approximately 33% reported both for the general population nationwide and specifically for Maui residents in a previous study.
  • Rates of depression in the MauiWES cohort increased with age, peaking at 75% in those aged 50-59.
  • 34.6% of MauiWES respondents reported low self-confidence, far exceeding the 13–14% observed in the 2023 UH Economic Research Organization (UHERO) survey before the fires. Low self-esteem was consistently high across all age groups in the MauiWES cohort, with notable peaks in the 30–39 and 70+ age groups.
  • 1.3% of participants reported recent suicidal thoughts, a slight increase from state and Maui-specific rates in May 2023, highlighting ongoing mental health challenges in wildfire recovery.

Food insecurity:

  • Approximately 35% of surveyed households experienced very low or low food security, higher than the 23.7% and 20.5% observed in the previous UHERO survey of Maui and state groups, respectively, before the August fires.

“The significantly higher prevalence of potential physical health problems among the affected population underscores the urgent need for early intervention to reduce exposures and prevent the onset of chronic disease and mortality,” according to the report. “This is particularly important for addressing respiratory conditions and mental health concerns, as well as improving access to health care services for uninsured individuals.”

The Maui community has faced significant challenges in recovering from the emotional, mental and physical trauma of the fires that also created environmental hazards, including air pollution and toxic substances, posing additional long-term health risks.

MauiWES participants contribute valuable data through a detailed questionnaire and health assessments, including the collection of biospecimens, to assess short- and long-term health outcomes of potential exposures to hazardous substances.

The study is led by UH Mānoa professors Ruben Juarez of UHERO in the UH Mānoa College of Social Sciences and Alika Maunakea of ​​the Department of Anatomy, Biochemistry and Physiology in the UH Mānoa John A. Burns School of Medicine (JABSOM).

The initiative is a partnership with community-based organizations, including the Maui Medic Healers Hui and Roots Reborn, and supported by seed funding from the Hawaii Community Foundation Maui Strong Fund. This public impact research project is the result of an ongoing partnership between UHERO and JABSOM.

Visit the UHERO website for the full report.

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