Nearly every building in the state constructed before 1980, including schools, state buildings and military bases, was built with asbestos products. These facilities continue to pose a public health hazard, as exposure to asbestos can cause deadly diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.
In recent years, Hawaii government officials have tried to protect its residents. Health officials closely monitor all public buildings that still contain asbestos material. Schools, for example, are inspected every six months to ensure that asbestos fibers cannot be released into the air.
The University of Hawaii Cancer Center is renowned for its research on the development, diagnosis and treatment of mesothelioma. Drs. Michele Carbone and Haining Yang, leading mesothelioma experts and researchers, and their colleagues published a study in December 2021 on the discovery that certain enzymes bind together to lessen the risk of developing mesothelioma.
Hawaii’s Occupations and Environmental Areas at Risk
The use of asbestos in Hawaii was so rampant that Thomas Lilekis, a Hawaii State Department of Health representative, said state residents are “living in and around it constantly.” He stated that the mineral is present in ceilings, floor tiles and drywall throughout the state. Lilekis noted, however, that asbestos materials only pose a health hazard if damaged.
In 2004, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) put the former Vermiculite of Hawaii plant on a priority list for cleanup. The ATSDR determined that the Honolulu factory received asbestos-contaminated vermiculite from Libby, Montana, between 1954 and 1983. Although the facility stopped handling vermiculite in 1983, deadly asbestos fibers may have been present at the site until 2001. This left employees and nearby residents at risk for decades, possibly even exposing family members of employees to asbestos.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cleaned up the half-acre lot in 2001. After the cleanup, the ATSDR stated that nearby residents were no longer at risk of exposure to the site. However, former residents, employees and family members are advised to monitor their health to detect any asbestos-related problems that may arise.
Jobsites with Known Asbestos Exposure:
- Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard
- Ford Isle Tower
- Schofield Barracks
- Libby processing site
Many of the state’s military facilities were constructed with asbestos materials, leaving U.S. armed forces at risk as well. In 2000, asbestos was found in Schofield Barracks in Oahu, forcing 600 soldiers to leave their living quarters. One representative stated that the displaced soldiers have a low risk for asbestos-related illnesses since their exposure to the contaminant was very limited.
Other similar situations may not have been handled as well. Also in 2000, the Army failed to remove asbestos safely in Fort Shafter, also in Oahu. The EPA said that Fort Shafter’s asbestos-containing material was not kept wet during the removal process, causing asbestos-containing materials to be emitted into the open air.
Hawaii Grant Research
Hawaii is a long way from the U.S. mainland, but Michele Carbone, M.D., had made mesothelioma a focal point of his research. Carbone gained a $3.8 million grant in 2011 for the University of Hawaii Cancer Center to study treatments for mesothelioma. He also convened a panel of experts worldwide to a symposium about BAP1 genetic mutation. More than half of the funding for mesothelioma research from the National Cancer Institute has gone to the University of Hawaii Cancer Center.
Reducing Future Asbestos Exposure
The Hawaiian government and the federal government are in the midst of cleanup projects to reduce future incidences of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. The EPA supervises the cleanup of three military facilities and another three commercial establishments in the state. The U.S. Army Environmental Command (USAEC) executes other cleanup projects, including ones in Schofield Barracks and Fort Shafter.
Asbestos at Pearl Harbor
Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard is arguably the most famous U.S. military post. Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, triggering America’s entry into World War II. Decades later, the military confronted another reality about Peart Harbor – that more than 10,000 people were exposed to asbestos there.
The EPA designated the U.S. Navy’s Pearl Harbor Complex as a Superfund site because of the number of toxic chemicals and substances present, including asbestos. An Army barracks and all of the Navy’s Pearl Harbor Complex are prime areas of concern, and abatement is an ongoing project for both military branches in Hawaii. The Navy demolished more than 250 buildings at Pearl Harbor. In addition, several buildings at the harbor’s shipyard are being abated.
Asbestos in Hawaiian Schools
Dealing with an aging public school system, officials in Hawaii made asbestos testing and abatement a priority in recent years. Since 2001, more than 10 schools statewide were found to contain asbestos, most on the island of Oahu.
Many of the asbestos-containing schools were damaged and required immediate abatement projects to ensure the safety of faculty, staff and students. One Oahu school, King Intermediate School, had to relocate some students when asbestos was found in two classrooms. Further tests revealed that other buildings on campus were asbestos-laden, and the school was forced to close for three days for an emergency abatement project.
Every school across Hawaii now has an asbestos management plan. They require inspection for asbestos and six-month periodic surveillance in case any material is damaged and becomes hazardous. Likewise, any time asbestos-containing materials are removed, the work has to be documented, and the air must be checked before reoccupation.