Traci Ruiz, second from left, picked up her four kids, including Randon, left, Kalei and Kai, from Makakilo Elementary School yesterday after an odor sent students and faculty to the hospital. A neighboring landfill is being investigated as a possible cause.

Mysterious odor
causes scare

A principal evacuates a Makakilo
school after 31 people get sick

State Health Department personnel will examine an old landfill this morning as a possible cause of a mysterious odor at Makakilo Elementary School that sickened 31 people yesterday.


Sheldon Oshio: The principal says 25 students and six faculty members went to the hospital

"There appear to be leaks (of methane gas) along the edge of the landfill," which is capped, said Steven Chang, Solid and Hazardous Waste Branch chief.

The landfill is located about three blocks from the school.

Ninety percent of the gas generated by decomposing material in a landfill is methane, which is odorless, Chang said. It emits a smaller amount of hydrogen sulfide, which has a "rotten-egg smell," he said.

The higher concentration of methane under the cap creates conditions for underground fires at the Puu Palailai landfill, which causes a burning or smoldering smell.

A Honolulu Fire Department hazardous-materials team tested the air quality and monitored for gases at the 540-student school yesterday morning and found nothing.

Chang said yesterday that health workers will recheck the landfill this morning when wind conditions are expected to be light. They had gone out yesterday when conditions were drizzly and breezy.

At about 8:44 a.m. a teacher reported smelling a propane odor, though there is no propane on campus. The school called 911, and the principal decided to evacuate everyone on campus to two designated safe areas. But when nothing was found, the school returned to normal at 10:30 a.m.

Twenty-five students and six faculty members were taken to area hospitals where they were treated and released, Principal Sheldon Oshio said late yesterday. They had complained of nausea, dizziness and headaches, he said.

The first of those affected were in the middle of the campus, Oshio said, but the smell appeared to move through the school.

Oshio said there were no serious problems, but there was concern for students with asthma.

Several children filed into an Emergency Medical Services bus, while others were taken by ambulance to area hospitals.

Parents and relatives, frantic with worry, showed up at the school to collect their children. Some learned about it after driving past on their way to work; others saw the emergency vehicles or heard the news.

About 25 students not taken to the hospital were taken home by parents and relatives.

"I would just feel more comfortable watching them at home," said Traci Ruiz, who took her four children, ages 10, 7, 6 and 5, home yesterday morning.

Ruiz was concerned because officials "have no idea what it is."

Marlena Clemente saw the news on TV and went to pick up her three children. "I know they must be frightened," she said.

Oshio said yesterday there have been intermittent smells on the campus, "but today it lingered."

On Sept. 19, 2000, eight people at the school were overcome by an odor. Fire officials traced that odor to the pesticide Malathion being sprayed by a homeowner living upwind.

Chang said pesticides smell more like propane than the gases emitted by the landfill. But in enough concentration, the smell of rotting garbage could cause someone to feel nauseated, Chang said.

The landfill closed in 1994.

Carroll Cox, president of EnviroWatch Inc., has done extensive research on the landfill and is concerned with the health of the community. "Only a chain-link fence separates the houses from the landfill," he said.

State Department of Health


E-mail to City Desk


Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
© 2004 Honolulu Star-Bulletin -- https://archives.starbulletin.com