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By Miriam Raftery

January 14, 2014 (San Diego's East County)--Are babies and children at risk of suppressed immune systems from wildfire smoke?

A new study at the University of Califiornia, Davis, suggests this could be the case.

The study was conducted by the  University and by the California Air Resources Board. It looked at 25 young Rhesus Macaque monkeys born at the university’s Primate Research Center during summer of 2008, when smoke from over 2,000 fires that burned over a million acres drifted into the area. The monkeys born during the wildfires, and  who were living outdoors, were found to have suppressed immune systems.  Their blood samples were placed in tissue culture dishes, then exposed to disease pathogens—and showed reduced ability to  generate immune responses to diseases than blood from 25 other monkeys born a year later.

Lisa Miller, professor of veterinary medicine at UC Davis, called the findings “surprising and somewhat disturbing.”  Before,  conventional wisdom in medicine had assumed that smoke or other irritants would cause the immune system to ramp up – but instead, this study found just the opposite.

Researchers also measured the effects of fine particular matter lodged deep in the lungs and found very high levels.  Wildfire smoke also causes high ozone levels, which is linked to asthma, lower birth weights and heart problems.  Development of children’s lungs, which take 18 years to fully mature, is also a key concern.

Another study is planned at the University of California, this time, on the impacts of wildfire smoke on people living there.

The findings are particularly troubling here in wildfire-prone San Diego’s East County, which  in 2003 and 2007 had the two worst firestorms in California history.  With climate change bringing hotter, drier weather, more severe fires are predicted.

If smoke from fires can harm the lungs and immune systems of children, that could have implications for Cal Fire and the Forest Service, which have increased controlled burns as a means of preventing out of control wildfires. 

“We don’t know yet if that would prevent us from using prescribed fires as a tool,” Forest Service ecologist Andrzej Bytnerowicz  [Andre-zhej  Bit-narrow-itz} said,the Sacramento Bee reported.

Meanwhile it’s best to err on the side of caution when the next wildfire strikes – keep children indoors if possible until the smoke clears.


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