September 20, 2020
In early September, the American Academy of Pediatrics hosted a webinar on wildfire and smoke exposure in children, where leading pediatricians Dr. Stephanie Holm and Dr. Petra Steinbuchel discussed the physical and mental health risks of wildfire smoke to children.
Dr. Holm presented studies showing that for young children, exposure to wildfire smoke is directly correlated with pneumonia, bronchitis, and other lower respiratory infections. For pregnant mothers, wildfire smoke increases the risk of decreased birth weight, preterm births, and respiratory mortality. Dr. Holm recommends air filtration inside the home as the only significant way to significantly reduce particulate matter from smoke, citing studies showing most masks to be less than 40% effective for wildfire smoke. Dr. Holm reminds us, “particulate matter is an IARC classified carcinogen, so the more we can reduce it the better.”
Dr. Steinbuchel discussed the mental health impacts of wildfires on children. PTSD is the greatest mental health risk for wildfire survivors, with 10-30% of survivors experiencing PTSD compared to 4-8% of the general population. Young children are most at risk. According to Dr. Steinbuchel, “kids have a way of sensing the truth,” so communicating honestly and compassionately with children can reduce the trauma that comes with wildfires.
Four out of the top five largest wildfires ever recorded in California are currently blanketing the state with a suffocating layer of smoke. While many flock to purchase expensive air filters and masks, Black, LatinX, and Native American groups are often left without the resources to protect their children’s physical and mental health. The American Academy of Pediatrics, which hosts this webinar, hopes that by bringing awareness to these risk factors, health officials can work towards making these resources more accessible to all.