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Kids, toxic smoke and inequality

By Somini Sengupta TNYT

I grew up in the age of smog in Southern California. I lived for a few years in one of the world’s most polluted cities, Delhi. I once took my daughter on vacation to the city where I was born, Calcutta, only to rush her to the emergency room because she couldn’t breathe; the pollution hung low and thick in the air.

And so, when I heard that researchers were looking into the impact of wildfire smoke in California, I thought about its effect on children. How have kids been coping with smoke during this extraordinary wildfire season, I wondered? And how were children who lived in already-polluted parts of the state handling the additional assault of wildfire smoke on their lungs, especially those in Fresno, where truck traffic and chemicals from the fields makes the air among the worst in the country?

I began by consulting two researchers at Stanford University: Dr. Kari Nadeau, a pediatric asthma specialist who has been studying the effects of air pollution on the health of children for many years, and Marshall Burke, an economist who analyzes the social and economic impacts of climate change and whose 8-year-old daughter, Zella, has asthma. Dr. Nadeau explained why exposure to wildfire smoke was so worrisome. It contains the same fine particulate matter that’s found in conventional sources of pollution and that her research has shown to have long-lasting effects on a child’s immune system. Wildfire smoke contains other toxic stuff, too, as entire neighborhoods go up in flames. Dr. Nadeau worries its impact could be worse than ordinary smog and last forever, too.

Dr. Burke explained how smoke pollution was beginning to reverse the gains that California had made in recent decades in improving its air quality. But it was his own personal experience that clued me in to how inequitable the impact of wildfire smoke pollution can be.

Dr. Burke lives in a Bay Area suburb where the air is very clean for most of the year. He can buy the best air purifiers on the market. He can avail the best care for his daughter — and when the smoke gets really bad, as it did this year, he and his wife can rent a house out of state and get away.

To get a sense of the health effects of wildfire smoke, I spoke to three dozen doctors, nurses, and their patients in the Bay Area and in the Central Valley. How children cope, I learned, depends so much on things beyond their control, like where they live and what their parents can afford. It’s yet another way that the human toll of climate change can be profoundly unfair.

Dr. Kari Nadeau, a professor of medicine at Stanford who specializes in pediatric allergies and asthma, said she worried that the damage to children might last a very long time. It is well-established that long-term exposure to fine particulate matter pollution, the kind that comes out of the tail pipes of cars and trucks, increases the risk of asthma in children and compromises their immune systems.

Her latest research suggests that exposure to wildfire smoke, which contains the same particulate pollution and more, is associated with genetic changes in children’s immune cells. “It could,” she said, “have irreversible consequences.”

Already, an 7.6 million children are exposed to wildfire smoke every year in the United States, and with climate change making the American West hotter and drier, many more children stand to be at risk. “This is a problem that’s not going to go away,” Dr. Nadeau said. “We are going to see these very extreme weather conditions and we should be prepared.”

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