Study claims link between cane burn and breathing problems - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Study claims link between cane burn and breathing problems

Courtesy: Joe Ritter Courtesy: Joe Ritter
MAUI (HawaiiNewsNow) -

Maui Medical Officer Lorrin Pang and four others examined sugar cane burning and medical records on Maui for 55 burn days. The findings make up the first published study that claims a link between cane smoke and respiratory illness.

"When real life shows you what you're theory is predicting, you're kind of on the money," Pang said.

Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company is the state's last sugar plantation. General manager Rick Volner said the study has significant flaws.

"The study provides absolutely no evidence that any individuals exhibiting the targeted health outcomes were actually exposed to cane smoke," he said.

Pang disagrees.

"When you burn the higher level of cane acreage there is a statistically significant increase in acute respiratory symptoms of the guys who went and sought pharmaceuticals," he said.

Volner said that conclusion was "reached through manipulation of the data and highly unconventional statistical analysis after the fact."

"If he says I manipulate my data until I find something I want he's absolutely wrong," Pang said.

In May, smoke from a cane fire sickened Maui school kids. A group called StopCaneBurning wants the state to invalidate HC&S's burn permit. The new study is ammunition.

"When we identify a factor that says it's worse effect on people's health, HC&S should pay attention to that instead of denying it," Karen Chun said.

The state permit sets the burn limit at 100 acres. Pang recommends an even tighter restriction.

"Don't burn more than a total of 90 acres on a given day," he said.

But Volner dismisses the study altogether as bad science.

"This study should not be used as a basis to inform public opinion or to make public policy decisions," he said.

The study's published in the journal Environmental Health.  Read the study here.

Rick Volner, HC&S General Manager, released the followed statement in response to the cane burning study:

"HC&S welcomes good scientific evaluation of any of its farming practices. However, this study is not good science, either in its construct or the analysis of the data obtained. Accordingly it should not be used in decision-making. Dr. Pang is fully aware that HC&S has had concerns with both the methodology and the analysis employed in this study, from the first time we were briefed, after the study had been completed.

As confirmed by independent epidemiology experts, the study suffers from significant design flaws, as well as the manner in which it was conducted. Moreover, its conclusions are not supported by either the data reported or by sound scientific method.  Among the most obvious flaws, the study provides absolutely no evidence that any individuals exhibiting the targeted health outcomes were actually exposed to cane smoke.

Importantly, the study found a significantly higher rate of respiratory illness on days when cane was not burned than on days when cane burning took place. The study itself states that an association between cane burning and respiratory distress “was not supported with either hospital data or pharmacy data.”

The study authors then dispute their own data by discounting occurrences of illness on non-burn days, simply assuming they were due to vog, because cane burning is not conducted on days when there is vog or rain. Yet, they offer no proof that there was indeed vog present on those non-burn days. In fact, the authors failed to disclose that almost all of the non-burn days included in the study occurred after the end of the harvest season, so the fact that no burning was conducted on those days is not an indicator of vog. This is but one example of the study’s many design flaws.

The study also attempts to promote a relationship between respiratory illness and larger burns, a conclusion reached through manipulation of the data and highly unconventional statistical analyses after the fact, by claiming that burns of 108 acres or more have a significant impact. But, because HC&S is already limited by its current burn permit to burns of no more than 100 acres, this questionable “finding” has no practical relevance.

Because of these serious flaws, this study should not be used as a basis to inform public opinion or to make public policy decisions."

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