Shedding Light in the Darkness

Study Links Sugar Cane Burning on Maui With Respiratory Illness


A new study, published in the journal Environmental Health, on the health effects of sugar cane burning finds a link between cane burning and acute respiratory illness. Sugar cane harvesting by burning on Maui island is an environmental health issue due to respiratory effects of smoke. Volcanic smog (“vog”) from an active volcano on a neighboring island periodically blankets Maui and could confound a study of cane smoke’s effects since cane burning is not allowed on vog days. This study examines the association between cane burning and emergency department (ED) visits, hospital admissions, and prescription fills for acute respiratory illnesses. 

The study concluded: “After adjusting for confounders on non-burn days, there was a significantly higher incidence of respiratory distress in smoke-exposed regions when greater amounts of acres were burned. Health officials should consider actions to reduce the negative health outcomes associated with sugar cane burning practices.

The study is a culmination of a four-year effort by five researchers, including the Maui District health officer, Dr. Lorrin Pang. The four other authors are from the University of California San Diego, University of Hawaii-Hilo, University of Hawaii-Manoa and the Hawaii Health Information Corp.

Trying to decipher whether those health symptoms are triggered by vog or cane burning is difficult, Pang said, but the study sheds new light on the issue by looking at the ratio of respiratory illness in those living downwind of cane fields versus those living upwind.

“Why DOH (Department of Health) pursues secondhand smoke so aggressively and doesn’t bother to even look into possible harmful effects of cane smoke is baffling,” Pang said.

Maui is the only Hawaiian island with an operating sugar cane plantation, run by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., which has disputed the findings and methodology of the research.

Two Maui residents in June filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health to invalidate HC&S’s burn permit and to end all agriculture burning.

A 2008 Brazilian report on sugar cane burning showed that especially the elderly, children and asthmatics suffer health effects of burning. It covered articles published between 1996 and 2006, which deal with the health effects of sugarcane burning and/or air pollutants originating from this burning.

The 2006 Brazilian study on The Impact of Sugar Cane–Burning Emissions on the Respiratory System of Children and the Elderly showed – “Elements generated from sugar cane burning were those most associated with both child and elderly respiratory admissions. Our results show the adverse impact of sugar cane burning emissions on the health of the population, reinforcing the need for public efforts to reduce and eventually eliminate this source of air pollution.”


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