Smoke's effect on babies at center of environmental fallout from October 2017 wildfires
Little Ellie Umehara just started walking. Life is normal for the 9-month-old. She coos and squeals, and goes to story time at the library with her mom.
All is well with the infant, part of a unique cohort of babies who were in their mothers' protective wombs last October when wildfires filled the air with the uncommonly foul smoke from the incineration of thousands of homes.
Aware of the potential harm, mother Christina Umehara, 34, stayed indoors as much as possible during the firestorm, wore a protective mask when she ventured outside - and worried.
“Everyone who knew we were pregnant was worried for us, as well,” the Santa Rosa woman said.
Just how worried they should have been is largely unknown to science.
Many parents fretted over the consequences for their children during the siege of fires, which belched out smoke that dimmed sunlight and cast a dark pall over Santa Rosa while they burned uncontrolled for more than three weeks.
Smoke, carrying tiny particles that can invade the lungs, is an established health threat, causing respiratory ailments, asthma and potential heart attacks, with children and seniors most vulnerable.
Increased hospital visits have been documented during wildfires, but relatively short-term exposure to smoke typically poses no long-term risks, experts say.
But there's a void of information on how it impacts the youngest of all, babies who haven't drawn their first breath, said Rebecca Schmidt, a UC Davis epidemiologist.
Assessing the impact
The legacy of the North Bay calamity includes her effort - with help from about 150 mothers who carried children during the fires - to assess the impact of wildfire smoke on young minds and bodies.
To a mother who was pregnant during the fires and wonders what that might mean, “the honest answer is we just don't know,” Schmidt said.
The fire legacy also includes a nearly half- million dollar project to protect the North Bay's largest reservoir from wildfires, an assessment of water quality in creeks within Sonoma and Napa county watersheds and examination of fire ash and air to identify the pollutants released when toxic chemicals - including solvents, glues, metals and formaldehydes - went up in smoke a year ago.
“It's a big issue we're going to be facing for decades to come,” said Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiologist who heads the Environmental Health Sciences Center at UC Davis. “Breathing more smoke as life goes on. It's going to affect everything.”
Collecting vital data
Christina and Ellie Umehara are part of the center's B-SAFE study, which stands for Bio- Specimen Assessment of Fire Effects. During the project, scientists are collecting samples of hair and blood, breast milk and baby saliva from participants in eight counties stricken by fire: Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Mendocino, Solano, Butte, Yuba and Nevada.
From mothers who enrolled while pregnant, placenta and umbilical cord blood collected at birth will assess what smoke-related substances were passed from mother to child.
Exposure to air pollution from nonwildfire sources has been associated with autism and other nervous system disorders, premature birth, low birth weight and post-birth respiratory deaths, Schmidt said.
The study is intended to determine whether adverse pregnancy outcomes occur or are exacerbated because of wildfire smoke, she said. The current two-year project will monitor the moms and babies for short-term health effects, and Schmidt said she hopes for ongoing support to continue the project as they grow older.
Meanwhile, she said, the ideal defense against wildfire smoke is to evacuate, but questions remain on how far to go and when it is safe to return. Mothers involved in the program who said they could not leave remained indoors with air conditioning running, frequently replacing the filters, and wearing masks when they went outside.
Painting the picture
Whether these steps are effective remains uncertain and will be explored in the study, Schmidt said.
More than 2,000 households representing about 6,000 people have taken an online survey posted by UC Davis in January asking people to describe their experience during the fires, such as how far they traveled to evacuate, whether they stayed with friends or in shelters and what they had to do without.
“We're trying to get a complete picture of how the wildfires changed their lives,” Hertz-Picciotto said.
For pregnant mothers, their stress level “is as important as anything they may have been exposed to,” Schmidt said.
UC Davis scientists are also working to identify wildfire pollutants by analyzing ash collected at a series of sites from Santa Rosa to the wildlands of Robert Louis Stevenson State Park on the Napa-Lake County line.