SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Wildfires across the West are sending toxic plumes of smoke into the air, affecting cities thousands of miles away.
Doctors are increasing awareness about potential dangers for unborn babies and pregnant women as fires become more frequent.
“Clinicians are now realizing that climate changes are impacting our patients right now because the events are so frequent,” Dr. Marya Zlatnik (OBGYN, maternal-fetal medicine expert at University of California San Francisco) said.
Dr. Zlatnik explains that historically, medical education for pregnant mothers has been more focused on individual choices and their impact on health like smoking.
“There’s sort of this whole, broad category of risks we haven’t studied yet. But they’re things we have lots of reason to suspect shouldn’t be ingested by pregnant women or kids,” said Dr. Zlatnik.
One year ago, the Bay Area saw a dark, gloomy sky. Fires were burning throughout Northern California. The state is currently being consumed by fires at the same rate.
Wildfire smoke contains small amounts of toxic particles that can enter the lungs and bloodstream. Dr. Zlatnik also said that scientists are now discovering soot in wildfire smoke in placentas.
“Anything that damages the placenta or causes inflammation in the placenta can potentially sort of directly harm the baby or lead to problems with pregnancy, like preterm birth, or the baby not growing as well.”
A studyThe study published last month revealed that wildfire smoke exposure may have contributed to as many as 7,000 more premature births in California between 2007 and 2012.
“That can have a lifelong impact for that baby. Prematurity, which is most likely the leading cause of neural development problems in children, is extremely costly and can be very frightening for parents,” Dr. Zlatnik said. “Anything we can do to avoid unnecessary inflammation is something that could potentially really have long-term beneficial health impacts.”
The authors of the new study point out that premature births cost the U.S. health system approximately $25 billion annually, and that even a modest decrease in preterm birth risk could be a great benefit to society.
Laura Canton is due to have her first child with her husband in October.
“When we walk on the beach, we see bottle caps, plastic bottles, Legos, just everywhere on the beach. It’s sad to know Ocean is going to grow up and may not get to go to Yosemite or the forest because it’s going to be gone,” said Canton.
She lives in San Diego, and has experienced the thick fog of wildfires.
“The clouds come in, and you can see it’s a different haze. Canton said that sunsets are orange. “It’s very dry here. So, if one house lights up, our houses are so close together, it could take down the whole city, it is scary.”
Dr. Zlatnik explains that pregnant women have options to protect their unborn children and themselves.
She advises that patients monitor air quality by checking the news and using apps like AirVisual, Plume Air Report, and AirVisual.
“The best way to improve air is to use either a home fan, air conditioning system that has a high-quality MERVE 13 filter that’s going to filter out the PM2.5 material or a portable air cleaner, air purifier, that’s filtering out that particulate matter.”
This is a more affordable option making one at homeWith a box fan or furnace filter.
“I didn’t use to advise this for the women I care for in pregnancy, that they needed to invest in one of these things,” said Dr. Zlatnik. “But that’s one of the ways that people who are pregnant can protect themselves.”