Dan Moynihan, a firefighter at ground zero in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, has a message for Maui residents affected by wildfires: Wear a mask.
Moynihan has teamed up with the American Lung Association in Hawaii to spread the message that proper masks are important for the protection of one’s health at sites affected by the fires on Maui.
“Masks are so critical right now,” said Moynihan, who lives part time on Oahu. “They really are.”
First responders, doctors, nurses and residents in the area need to wear an N95 respirator or one with HEPA filters to protect themselves, he said, warning of all the potential toxic hazards they can be exposed to.
The scene of destruction in Lahaina is similar to the “ground zero” he responded to in New York, with the same magnitude of concern over the toxic hazards left in the wake of the destruction.
In addition to the homes that burned, he noted, there are also scorched vehicles, boats and gasoline, and all the chemicals resulting from the burning of plastic, wood and metals.
“It’s an entire town,” he said. “You’re talking about a volatile mix of toxins that folks — when they were first there, they were exposed to smoke for hours, and now they’re exposed to the dust and the fine particulate matter that’s in the air.”
The scenes of devastation triggered the trauma of 9/11, but the first thought he had was that people needed to protect themselves as much as possible, he said.
Moynihan knows, as he is battling some long-term consequences from exposure to the site.
He responded on 9/11 and stayed on the scene for about a month. In those first few days, he recalls wearing just a dust mask, which would last for only about 10 minutes. Eventually, firefighters on-site wore respirators.
But then about six months later — despite being an avid athlete and cross-country runner with previously healthy lungs — he remembers being winded after climbing a set of stairs.
He suffers today from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic migraines and sinus issues, among other health challenges.
“I lost a lot of friends in one day,” he said, “and I’ve lost more since the Trade Center collapsed from illnesses.”
The American Lung Association Hawaii would be very concerned if people working at affected sites are not wearing protecting masks, according to Executive Director Pedro Haro. He hopes that adequate personal protective equipment, including the distribution of proper masks, is being offered at affected zones on Maui.
The nonprofit has sent signs to be posted around Lahaina warning that residents and volunteers should wear a well-fitted N95 or HEPA-filtered mask during cleanup because the process involves ashes and other sources of pollution that can affect the long-term health of lungs.
If people in affected areas are able to stay inside their home, office or place of business, they should do so, and if they can, set air-conditioning systems to recirculate so outside air is not pulled in.
Moynihan, now retired, said it is important that people protect themselves in the short term as much as possible, but he also recommends a health care registry be set up for those affected by the fires, particularly for first responders.
He also recommends watching out for post- traumatic stress disorder and that people seek help for mental health issues. His heart goes out to the Maui firefighters in the tragedy, who went above and beyond, he said, when everything was stacked against them.
“These stories are heartbreaking,” he said.
The state Department of Health has advised Maui residents near burn sites to protect themselves by wearing protective face masks, goggles, gloves, long sleeves, pants, socks and shoes to avoid skin contact with ash.
The masks should be a tight-fitting respirator mask labeled “NIOSH” or “N95,” according to DOH. Cloth masks will not protect people from ash.
DOH said children and women who are pregnant are at higher risk from debris hazards and should stay away from burn sites and not help with cleanup efforts. Ash and dust, particularly from burned buildings, DOH warned, could contain toxic and cancer- causing chemicals including asbestos, lead and arsenic.
More information is available at health.hawaii.gov/mauiwildfires.
Protecting your lungs’ health during wildfire season