Scientists are investigating whether the fires triggered by climate change will lead to premature births and miscarriages in California.
Napa, California - When the sun sets in October, 10-month-old Sonny climbs through a tunnel in a playground surrounded by fresh cedar wood chips. His 4-year-old sister Lenny climbed the ladder while their parents Rebecca and Omar Chowaiki were watching.
"He is the happiest baby. He laughs happily," Rebecca Chowaiki said of her son. "We named him Sonny because it was a difficult pregnancy. We knew he needed to overcome some obstacles, so we hope he has a sunny character."
Sonny was diagnosed with a condition called bilateral clubfoot. An expert put a cast on his foot, he underwent an Achilles tendon amputation, and he was also wearing orthopedic shoes connected by rods. He also received another type of physical therapy called hypotonia, which meant he was lethargic and his head drooped when sitting. This is equivalent to several months of medical appointments. "Just let the flow go," his mother said.
Smoking during pregnancy significantly increases the risk of deformed feet in babies, but Sonny’s mother has never smoked. "For the past four years, we have been breathing in burning buildings," she told EHN. "We all smoke in one way or another."
The sky today is blue, but the grass and bushes are as crisp as fire. In recent weeks, officials have issued red flag warnings, which means that dry and windy conditions are ideal for wildfires to ignite and spread quickly. "When this happens, we will cheer up," Chowaiki said.
Since 2017, wildfires have swept through Napa and nearby Sonoma every fall. Summer is hotter, lasts longer, and rains less. The fire dropped thick smoke in the area for weeks or months. Chowaiki breathed smoke in 2017, 2018 and 2019, which led to Sonny's conception.
On October 9, 2021, Omar Chowicki showed a photo of his son Sonny at his home in Napa, California, who underwent a cast of his leg after clubfoot surgery. (Image source: David Ryder)
There is a hill behind the playground. Chowaiki can see it from the window of her kitchen. This made her feel anxious-the fire had spread to the other side of the mountain in the past few years.
"It's really scary. There are a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder. When you sleep, you think:'Well, if I have to wake up suddenly and I see the hill behind me on fire, I will tell my husband, you Catch our daughter, I will catch our son, we just want the dog to follow us."
Chowaiki didn’t directly link Sonny’s condition to wildfires — “We don’t live in a vacuum,” she said — but she recently participated in a study at the University of California, Davis, which is examining people’s exposure In the wildfire smoke. After inhaling these things for many years, she is curious about how it affects her body and children.
Fires in California due to climate change are intensifying every year, and the western United States and Canada are enveloped by ominous smoke visible from space. According to Reuters data analysis, since the 1970s, the average summer temperature in California has risen by 1.4 degrees Celsius, and the area burned in the state has increased fivefold. According to data from the Climate Center, certain areas of California now double the number of days of fire weather per year compared to the 1970s. Wildfire smoke is spreading further across the continent, as far as Toronto and New York in the summer of 2021. With the growth of wildfires and population, more and more people are exposed to smoke containing plastics, heavy metals from burning buildings and vehicles, and tiny dangerous particles, which can penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. Scientists know that wildfire smoke increases the risk of asthma in children, as well as the risk of heart disease, heart attack, stroke and death in adults.
Scientists now believe that the smoke and pressure from wildfires may also lead to undesirable pregnancy outcomes, such as low birth weight, premature delivery - and even miscarriage.
On September 9, 2020, wildfire smoke from Oregon and southern Washington State was dyed orange, and the sun fell from behind a hill in Calama, Washington. On the other side of Oregon, officials have sent Level 3 "action now" evacuation notices to at least half of Clackamas County due to multiple wildfires (source: David Ryder)
According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, out of 3.75 million live births in the United States each year, about 500,000 babies are born prematurely and 120,000 babies have birth defects. The CDC says that non-smokers exposed to tobacco smoke have a higher risk of preterm birth, low birth weight and miscarriage. Air pollution can also cause low birth weight or premature delivery, even at levels below the Federal Environmental Protection Agency's standards.
About an hour’s drive from Napa, scientists are investigating whether to add wildfire smoke to the list of risk factors for adverse birth outcomes. In Davis, California, there are approximately 4,000 rhesus monkeys (a primate about the size of a domestic cat) living in dozens of outdoor cages the size of a gymnasium. Since the 1960s, the California National Primate Research Center has been studying monkeys because they are biologically close to humans. But recently primates have become the subject of unplanned studies released in September.
In November 2018, at the peak of the monkey mating season, smoke from a campfire about 100 miles away enveloped the cage. The researchers tracked the monkey's pregnancy, and when they gave birth in the spring, they found that primates exposed to smoke had a higher rate of miscarriage.
In the first nine years, the average live birth rate of monkeys breathing fresh air was 90%. The live birth rate of monkeys exposed to wildfire smoke in 2018 was 82%, a decrease of 8%.
Brin Wilson, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of California, Davis and lead researcher on the primate paper, told EHN that she was surprised that the effect was not worse. "There are still a few primates who become pregnant at the peak of poor air quality, and then they continue to give birth to healthy [babies]," she told EHN. Wilson said another group of researchers plan to track monkeys born after wildfires in 2018 to understand the long-term effects of smoke on them.
Monkey research is part of an emerging research organization.
On September 11, 2020, in Medford, Oregon, a crow is silhouetted against a sun that has been dyed orange by wildfire smoke. Hundreds of houses in nearby towns were destroyed by wildfires. (Source: David Ryder)
In 2012, scientists at the University of California, Berkeley found that the 2003 Southern California wildfire was associated with a slight decrease in birth weight. In 2019, a study by the Colorado School of Public Health linked wildfire smoke to preterm birth. Low birth weight is associated with a higher risk of infant death, disease, or suppression of cognitive development in later life. According to the World Health Organization, babies born prematurely may have learning disabilities and vision and hearing problems.
New research shows that wildfire smoke may also increase the risk of human miscarriage.
In an unpublished paper currently under peer review, Stanford University researchers looked at data to see if the 2020 apocalyptic wildfire smoke on the West Coast alternates day and night with the number of abortions in the Stanford emergency room near San Jose, California related. Compared with years without smoking, they found that the probability of miscarriage during the 2020 wildfire smoke incident increased by 29%.
"They are a big number," Marshall Burke, who co-authored the paper with lead researcher Bibek Paudel, told EHN. Burke also contributed to a previous paper, which found that one day exposure to moderate to high intensity wildfire smoke increases the probability of preterm birth by 1%, which means that exposure for two weeks leads to the possibility of preterm birth. Increase by 14%. "This is consistent with our other paper," he said of the ER data. "Exposure to wildfire smoke in the womb can greatly worsen fertility results."
Burke said that the smoke is "absolutely possible" to cause Sonny's condition, and Joe Waikie's curiosity is correct. "I don't think we have conducted smoking gun research specifically on birth defects, but everything we found about the effect of wildfire smoke on pregnancy outcomes suggests that it may have a series of negative results."
Although policy changes over the past 30 years have reduced dangerous air pollution from vehicles and industries in California, Burke said that fires now account for a greater proportion of poor air quality—about half of the state’s air pollution. Burke said: "The state has seen a significant drop in exposure to these pollutants in general, [but] wildfires are moving in another direction." "They are increasing exposure again."
Rebecca Schmidt, an associate professor at the University of California Davis School of Medicine, is conducting a study of people who became pregnant during the fires of 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. Chowaiki participated in her research.
Schmidt told EHN: "Our hope is to be able to grow up with these pregnant children and observe their various results, because [in terms of respiratory results later in life] very little has been done."
Schmidt is sampling the hair of participants to learn about heavy metals that may come from wildfires. She is still collecting the placenta for testing.
An Australian doctor found that the placenta of a person who became pregnant during a wildfire was similar to that of a person who smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, but Schmidt did not see a similar situation in the placenta of California. "It hasn't been copied yet. This is a small study, but it does make people stop. Is this something we should focus on?" she said.
Scientists don't know how wildfire smoke affects fetuses in the womb, but they have some theories.
Similar to automobiles and industrial factories, wildfires emit tiny particles such as PM 2.5 and PM 0.1, which are very small and can enter the bloodstream from the lungs and spread throughout the body. "They tend to let other pollutants ride in," Schmidt said. "Things like heavy metals will stick to these small particles and go deep into the lungs and other places. This can cause inflammation. In general, inflammation is bad for your health."
Schmidt said the inflammation caused by the infection can destroy the placenta and cause problems such as premature birth, low birth weight and stillbirth.
Wilson also has a theory. The campfire in the cage was the most destructive fire in California's history, destroying more than 18,000 buildings. Sampling of Camp Fire smoke showed that it contained oxidized organic substances and phthalates from burned trees. It is well known that these substances can disrupt the body’s endocrine pathways, affect metabolism and damage the damage from burned furniture and buildings. DNA. Phthalates are related to abnormal fetal development and adverse consequences after birth.
"When buildings are burned down and furniture is burned down, you will release other toxic compounds into the atmosphere, including phthalates, and we know that these compounds are bad for human breathing," Wilson said.
Willson said pollutants such as PM 2.5, PM 0.1 and phthalates may pass through the placenta, but more research is needed to confirm this.
On October 9, 2021, Rebecca Chowaiki (Rebecca Chowaiki) holds her son Sonny in a park near her home in Napa, California. (Image source: David Ryder)
Schmidt investigated his parents about their symptoms in the wildfire. Short-term effects include coughing, eye irritation, and sore throat. But one of the most common symptoms is the long-term stress and anxiety caused by proximity to wildfires. "Even after a year, they are still suffering from high levels of stress and anxiety," she said.
She explained that stress can exacerbate inflammation in a way similar to smoking, which means that pregnant women may face double exposure to smoke and mental health effects. She pointed out that a study showed that stress is a risk factor leading to consequences such as premature birth.
Chowaiki said her pregnancy with Sonny was “stressed” due to the pandemic and his intrauterine diagnosis of bilateral clubfoot.
She also feels climate anxiety. Her daughter Lenny was born prematurely in the wildfires of the fall of 2017. When she was in the intensive care unit, the hospital had a power outage. Since then, entire towns in California have been razed to the ground. "I know that many people have lost their homes at this time," she said. She knew that her home might not be here next year.
On October 9, 2021, Rebecca Chowaiki and Omar Chowaiki with their son Sonny and daughter Lenny at their home in Napa, California . (Image source: David Ryder)
Burke advises people to stay indoors when the smoke is full, close doors and windows, and invest in indoor air filtration. If they can't filter the entire house, they should filter a room and stay there as much as possible. He extended this advice to people far away from the fire; in the summer of 2021, the smoke from wildfires drifted across the African continent into cities such as Toronto, Boston, and New York.
Burke acknowledged that not everyone can afford to filter indoor air. Some people work outdoors, such as construction workers and agricultural employees. In this case, he said that N-95 masks can help reduce exposure to smoke, but employers and regulatory agencies must be responsible for protecting workers, whether it is heat waves or wildfires.
"Limiting their exposure is our broader responsibility-which means reducing the amount of wildfire smoke in the air. This is the basic thing we need to do," he said.
During the wildfire season, Chowaiki checks the air quality from different sources so that she knows when to stay indoors. If she must go out in the smoke, she will wear an N-95 mask.
"If you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out, but if you put a frog in the water and heat it slowly, it will stay there until it dies," Chowaiki said. "I think this is what we are doing. We let this be our normal state. It shouldn't be normal."
Banner photo: Sonny Chowaiki sits in the arms of his mother Rebecca in a park near their home in Napa, California, October 9, 2021. (Image source: David Ryder)