Can we protect our children from wildfire smoke?

Andrea Booher/FEMA

Rebecca Stevers was forced to flee Dry Creek Road in October as her husband and their neighbors battled to keep the Nuns Fire from jumping the ridge and annihilating their Napa Valley, California home. She took her children to a friend-of-a-friend’s rental property in San Francisco where she thought they were safe from the threat of fire. But because her 12-year-old son Dylan has asthma, she was more concerned about him inhaling the smoke, which saturated the air even 50 miles away in San Francisco.


Stevers is not alone; the number and severity of wildfires throughout the West is affecting an increasing number of children. Severe, prolonged droughts and decades of fire management policy have created a tinderbox of overgrown forests that have led to an increasing number of wildfires. As a result, doctors say, emergency room visits and hospital admissions due to respiratory symptoms are expected to increase in wildfire-prone areas.


“People are more likely to fall sick due to respiratory diseases [when exposed to wildfire smoke] and are particularly more at risk for respiratory tract infections,” Dr. Jia Coco Liu, an environmental health researcher at Johns Hopkins University said. The immediate risks of irritation—wheezing and coughing—and infection are compounded in small children because their lungs do not fully develop until school age; kids with asthma are even more vulnerable.


The effects of wildfire smoke on children’s health might even last for years, some studies show. Primates exposed to wildfire smoke during the first year of life suffer from decrements in respiratory and immune function three years later, according to a report by University of California-Davis veterinarian and researcher Dr. Lisa Miller. The first results from the research were published in the May issue of American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology.  


“We did expect to see the lung effect, but the immune response was surprising,” Miller said. Follow-up studies with these animals could provide insight to the long term developmental effects of wildfire smoke exposure, she said.


Dylan Stevers did suffer several asthma attacks during his family’s two-week exile, and his mother wants to know what more can be done. “Should we uproot everything and move across the country?” she asks.


Congress is currently considering pushing for measures to better protect children from health risks due to changes in environmental threats.

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