Wildfire Smoke Could Lead to Premature Births

By Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

According to a new Stanford study, breathing wildfire smoke while pregnant may increase the risk of preterm birth.

  • As many as 7,000 additional preterm births in California between 2007 and 2012 could have resulted from exposure to smoke from the fires that have hit the state especially hard in recent years.

Wildfire smoke has high levels of PM 2.5, the small and harmful particle pollution that can enter the lungs and bloodstream—and, through a series of impacts to the body, trigger early contractions. Just a week’s worth of smoke was associated with a 5% increased risk. A month meant a 20% increase. Last year, more than half of Californians were breathing an unhealthy to hazardous level of smoke for at least a month.

Why This Matters: This study adds to the growing list of detrimental impacts of wildfire smoke on air quality and people’s health. Last year’s fire season led to some of the worst daily air pollution in California, and this year’s season has produced the biggest single fire in the state’s history and record-breaking air pollution. A recent study linked wildfire smoke to spikes in positive COVID-19 cases, disproportionately impacting people of color. Even those not living in the direct path of the fire have been affected by drifting smoke: the Reno public schools closed because of hazardous air quality.

The Future is Firey: The study period ended in 2012, but wildfire smoke has only become worse since. According to one of the study’s authors, four of the last five years had worse smoke than any in the sample. More than a million acres have already burned this year, and warming temperatures and drought covering 95% of the West are fueling this fire season. The Los Angeles Times wrote earlier this month, “the conditions this year underscore how the changing climate is fundamentally altering the dynamics of fighting and surviving fires in California. Many of the ingredients are in place for another flame-filled fall.

The trends beyond this year point to more fire and more smoke: “In the future, we expect to see more frequent and intense exposure to wildfire smoke throughout the West due to a confluence of factors, including climate change, a century of fire suppression and construction of more homes along the fire-prone fringes of forests, scrublands, and grasslands. As a result, the health burden from smoke exposure – including preterm births – is likely to increase,” said lead author Sam Heft-Neal, a research scholar at Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment.

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