Burning Question for Babies’ Health

UMD Leads National Study on Long-Term Effects of Wildfires

Roughly 70,000 wildfires scorch portions of the United States each year, leaving lasting physical and mental scars for adults and children fleeing the flames. But what’s less clear is how these events impact the earliest—and most vulnerable—stage of life.

A new national study led by health policy and management Associate Professor Michel Boudreaux will explore the relationship between wildfire-causing pollution and stress and infant health, from pregnancy through a child’s first year.

Supported by a $2.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the UMD study—which includes faculty in public health, atmospheric and oceanic science, and geographical sciences—will compare the health records of around 65 million infants over a 16-year period with wildfire data gleaned from atmospheric modeling and satellite imagery.

Wildfire smoke, which is laden with toxic fine particulate matter, can travel thousands of miles and has been linked to asthma, heart disease and cognitive issues like dementia. Toxic exposures in utero, Boudreaux says, can result in lifelong health effects. Wildfire activity is expected to increase 50% by the end of the century and is already rolling back air quality gains from policies like the Clean Air Act, making fire events a hazard for everyone, regardless of geography, says Boudreaux.

“We’re now in a situation where we need to think about how we’re going to face this new threat,” he says. “We can no longer say, ‘This is happening in the future.’ This is happening right now.”


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