California Wildfires May be Making Children Sick: Study

California Wildfires May be Making ChildrenSick: Study

11 December 2006

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USA — The wildfires that swept through Southern California in2003 may have caused wheezing and other respiratory problems in many children,even those without asthma, according to a new study.

Asthmatic children, being particularly susceptible to the effects of the smokyair, suffered the most symptoms, the study found.

But non-asthmatic children were also struck by attacks of wheezing, coughing,sore throats, eye irritation and colds during the October 2003 wildfires thatburned more than 1,000 square miles in Southern California.

They essentially experienced what many asthmatic children do on a normal day,the study authors report in the American Journal of Respiratory and CriticalCare Medicine.

“The fire gave the non-asthmatics an idea of what it means to live withasthma,” Dr. Nino Kunzli, the study’s lead author, told Reuters Health.

The 2003 wildfires sent plumes of smoke into the air that hovered for days,raising levels of air-polluting particulate matter by 10 to 20 times. The smokealso contained carbon monoxide and numerous other toxic substances. Such poorair quality is particularly dangerous for people with asthma, whose symptoms canbe exacerbated.

To measure the impact of the wildfires on asthmatic and non-asthmaticchildren, Kunzli and his colleagues at the University of Southern California inLos Angeles surveyed 873 high school students and the parents of 5,551 childrenbetween 6 and 7 years old. All of the children lived in one of 16 communitiesaffected by the fires.

The 706 children with asthma were two to three times more likely thannon-asthmatic children to suffer wheezing, other respiratory symptoms, and eyesymptoms. But children without the condition also had symptoms at ahigher-than-normal rate on smoky days.

The study did find, however, that some protective measures health officialsrecommended at the time — such as avoiding outdoor activities and wearing amask — seemed to lower the odds of respiratory problems. Children with asthmawere more likely to follow this advice.

“It is clear that reduction of exposure to wildfire smoke reduces thehealth problems,” Kunzli said. If families can’t evacuate their homes insuch situations, he noted, measures like using masks and staying inside might atleast reduce any respiratory effects.

It’s not possible to tell from the current study whether this smoke exposurewill have lasting effects on the children’s health. However, he added, giventhat even smokers’ lung health improves once they quit, there may be nolong-term damage from the wildfire smoke.

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