Researchers to study health impacts on pregnant women exposed to wildfires

- When the wildfires broke out last October, Santa Rosa resident Laurel Chambers was eight weeks pregnant with her first child. 

It was so early in her pregnancy that Chambers and her husband hadn’t yet publicly shared their news.

But as the smoke from the massive fire in the Coffey Park neighborhood began wafting toward her home a couple of miles away, the 33-year-old Chambers knew she had to do everything she could to protect her own health and the health of her unborn daughter. 

She stocked up on high-quality face masks, limited her time outside and paid close attention to emails from Kaiser about staying healthy during the two-week firestorm.

“I also stayed away from the burned areas even after the smoke cleared. I was curious to check it out but it wasn’t worth the risk,’’ she said.

Two weeks ago, Chambers gave birth to a healthy baby named Eleanor. 

Still, she is interested to learn if she and Eleanor were exposed to high amount of toxins during the wildfires. Chambers also wants to use what she learned dealing with the fires to help other pregnant women who are exposed to wildfires down the line.

Chambers is one about 200 women who have expressed interest in being part of a new UC Davis study to determine if the Northern California wildfires affected their health and the health of their babies. 

Public health researchers leading the study will test blood, hair and breast milk from women and, if possible, placenta, umbilical cord, saliva and blood samples from new babies for toxic exposures related to smoke and ash from the fires. 

“Very little is known about how wildfires impact the health of women and their babies who were exposed during pregnancy,” said investigator Rebecca Schmidt, assistant professor of public health and sciences at UC Davis. “Our goal is to gather mothers with fire-affected pregnancies who want to help us understand what they were exposed to and the biological effects of those exposures on them and their children.”

Study participants must have been living or working in Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Nevada, Solano, Sonoma or Yuba County in October 2017.  

Participants must be at least 18 years old, be able to understand and write in English, and be pregnant with an expected due date of no later than Oct. 31, or a new mom who was pregnant at the time of the fires.

The paid study, funded by the National Institutes of Health, will run two years and participants will be the first to know the study results. Results will also be shared with county officials and other decision makers in hopes of learning how to better protect pregnant women and unborn babies during wildfires, Schmidt said. 

For information about the study, email or call 916-703-0228.


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