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Forest fires may impact newborns' birth weight, study finds

Experts worry about how this impacts infants’ health long-term

Wildfire and rising smoke
Photo (c) Andrew Merry - Getty Images
Several studies have highlighted the risks for consumers associated with exposure to smoke and pollution from wildfires. Now, a new study published in eLife suggests that these pollutants could be especially harmful to pregnant women and their unborn children.

According to their findings, when women are exposed to wildfire smoke during pregnancy, it may increase the risk of low birth weight for their infants. 

“Babies with low birth weight are at higher risk of a range of diseases in later life compared to normal weight newborns,” said researcher Jiajianghui Li. “Several studies have shown the effects of landscape smoke on acute lung and heart conditions, but the health impacts of these pollutants on susceptible pregnant women are not well known. We wanted to explore the association between birth weight and exposure to fire source pollution across several countries and over a long time period.” 

Newborn health risk

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from nearly 110,000 siblings from more than 50 low- or middle-income countries. They also looked at information collected by the Global Fire Emission Database to determine how the participants were directly impacted by forest fires and evaluated survey responses from women involved in the U.S. Agency for International Development. 

Ultimately, the researchers identified a direct relationship between exposure to wildfire smoke pollutants and low infant birth weight. 

“The effect was even more pronounced when we looked at whether exposure to fire smoke was linked to low or very low birth weight; for every microgram per cubic meter increase in particulate matter, the risks of low and very low birth weight increased by around three and 12 percent, respectively,” said researcher Tianjia Guan. 

The team took the findings a step further by looking at individual families to see if any factors impacted the infants’ low birth weight. They learned that those with a family history of low birth weight were at the greatest risk and were more likely to have newborns with very low birth weight when exposed to wildfire smoke. 

Moving forward, the researchers hope more work can be done to protect consumers from these harmful pollutants. 

“Our global, sibling-matched study has identified a link between exposure in pregnancy to landscape fire pollution and reduced birth weight in low- and middle-income countries,” said researcher Tao Xue. “Newborns from families where lower birth weights were more common were the most susceptible. It is essential to develop steps that reduce the frequency of landscape fires, for example through climate change mitigations, to protect maternal and infant health in these vulnerable populations.” 

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