The country isn't lacking in natural disasters lately, but while things like hurricanes and tropical storms seem to get most of the attention, it's easy to forget that a substantial portion of the west has suffered wildfires. These seem to happen more often than anyone would like, but how does all of that smoke factor into your life? If you're expecting, does breathing in wildfire smoke harm your pregnancy? It's a valid concern.
While fire crews routinely make excellent progress towards putting them out, the truth is, wildfires can have lasting effects that aren't completely eliminated once a fire is no longer blazing. What does it mean to the millions of pregnant women in the vicinity of these fires, both for them and their unborn children? Do they have a reason to be concerned, or are you seeing unicorns where there are only horses?
I spoke with a certified nurse midwife from near some of the worst fires in Utah, Amy Walker, to get a handle on what women should or shouldn't worry about, what they can do, and what the latest literature suggests when it comes to expecting moms and this natural disaster.
Walker tells Romper that is absolutely normal to be especially worried about the wildfires when you're pregnant. "They're terrifying to all of us, but when you have the added worry of pregnancy, it can be even scarier. It's hard not to panic when going outside brings on coughing fits and burning eyes. You understand that that can't be good for you or your baby." She's not the only one who thinks this way. AirNow, the air quality overwatch of U.S. Embassies and Consulates, considers pregnant women a special category of people who are at risk for the potentially life-threatening effects of wildfires, and makes special provisions for their safety.
Walker went on to say that there is some concern that women who live in these affected areas may end up with babies with a slightly lower birth weight, as they've found in other regions with dense deforestation and wildfires. Is there more, though? How do forest fires affect pregnant women beyond low birth weight and worry? Walker says, "Women who are pregnant in these areas are also at an increased risk for postpartum depression. We see that in any area with a natural disaster. Your home may be destroyed or your friends may lose theirs, your schools, your system is uprooted, and it is an added stress."
"Unfortunately," she adds, "some of the dangers associated with being pregnant near a wildfire are even more dangerous for some mothers. For instance, if you're already suffering from asthma, which can be exacerbated just by virtue of being pregnant, the fires will likely irritate your asthma. Women with asthma are already more at risk for hypertension, preterm birth, and decreased fetal growth, so it really needs to be watched closely by both the mom and her caregiver."
Walker notes that antenatal anxiety and postpartum anxiety are amped up in a natural disaster situation, too. "Don't discount your fear — talk about it," she tells Romper. "It's important to keep an open line of communication with your support system and with your caregiver. If it's bad, tell someone. Women who live through these situations often will require more reassurance and assistance than they typically would need if they were in better conditions."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pregnant women may need to evacuate if things get dire for them. If they're being more severely affected than the general population, it's better to be safe than sorry. Like Walker, the CDC stressed keeping a dialogue running with your midwife or OB-GYN at all times, and check in frequently. It's also advised that women in the affected areas remain indoors, hydrated, and aware. AirNow suggested keeping masks on hand if air quality becomes severe, and noted that "Particulate masks known as N-95 or P-100 respirators will help, but they must fit well and be used correctly. They are sold at many hardware and home repair stores and online." AirNow also recommended that you monitor air quality reports and have a strategy for evacuation if it comes to that, but to try not to panic, even if that's easier said than done.
Walker tells Romper that the smoke from wildfires mimics that from cigarette smoke, and like cigarette smoke, it's best to try to avoid it if possible. She says you can invest in a certified air cleaning device for your home, but above all, stay alert and in contact with your caregiver. In the end, these fires are dangerous and unpredictable. Hopefully, you can go back to worrying about more mundane things like why Kim K wore transparent leggings or which brand of breast pump makes the least noise. Until then, watch the news and check in with your OB-GYN regularly. Oh, and try not to freak out.
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