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No Ka Oi Health

Did you know that the quality of the air you breathe can affect your chances of developing a severe case of COVID-19?

Research has found an association between air pollution and death rates from COVID-19. One of the most common and dangerous forms of air pollution is fine particulate matter, which can come from car exhaust, fire smoke, generators and tobacco smoke. Even small increases in long-term exposure have been found to be associated with large increases in COVID-19 death rates. This is in addition to the link that already exists between particle pollution and increased risk for lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes and premature death. Breathing in such small pollutants can damage the lungs over time and weaken the body’s ability to fight off respiratory infections such as COVID-19.

While Maui as a whole is generally blessed with clean air, it doesn’t mean Maui residents are not vulnerable to air pollution. It just means that air pollution doesn’t usually cover a large area, except during large wildfires or when the Big Island volcano is active. But poor air quality can still affect individuals.

For example, Hawaii does not have restrictions on the amount of pollutants a vehicle can emit. Diesel, mostly found with pickup trucks, especially produces high amounts of fine and ultrafine particulate matter that can reach the deepest parts of the lung and therefore can pose health risks, including increased vulnerability to COVID-19. As another example, Maui’s reliance on burning oil for electricity generation is another major source of harmful pollution, especially from the decades-old Kahului power plant polluting the densest residential area on the island.

Especially since air pollution on Maui isn’t usually an area-wide problem like many places on the Mainland, Maui residents have more options to limit their exposure to particle pollution and its health impacts. Here are some tips on what you can do to protect yourselves, your ‘ohana, and your Maui community:

• Wear a mask, which performs double duty — protecting you from COVID-19 and harmful air pollutants.

• Avoid using or being exposed to cigarette smoke or vaping products, especially indoors. Smoking can double your risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms. If you need help with quitting tobacco products, call 1 (800) QUIT-NOW.

• Avoid exercising in areas where there is air pollution, such as near busy roads, idling vehicles, construction sites or gas leaf blowers. While exercise is vital for your health, it’s also when your lungs are working hardest. Any present pollutants are more likely to be embedded deeper in your lungs rather than be filtered out.

• For the safety and courtesy of others (especially kids), do not idle your vehicle, especially near school campuses and parks.

• When purchasing vehicles or landscaping equipment, consider electric models which have become more affordable in recent years and come with other benefits too (less noisy and easier to maintain).

• Do not burn yard waste or trash. In fact, any burning except for cooking is illegal on Maui without a permit, and it also adds to the risk of dangerous wildfires. Burning wood has more in common with secondhand cigarette smoke than you might think, and it can actually be more harmful.

• During wildfires, if you see or smell the smoke in your area, close your windows and stay indoors if possible.

• Don’t be afraid to speak up, to educate others and to protect your right to clean air. You are the most important advocate of your own health!

By being aware of the air you breathe and your impact on the air you share with others, you and the Maui community can live healthier — not just during this COVID-19 pandemic but over the long term as well.

* Kristin Mills is public health educator with the state Department of Health’s Maui District Health Office. No Ka Oi Health is published on the second and fourth Thursday of the month by the state Department of Health. This article was written in collaboration with Quieter & Healthier Maui, a new group of residents focused on improving health and quality of life through cleaner air and less noise.

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