Studies seek to uncover long-term effects of wildfire smoke on babies, pregnant mothers

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DAVIS, Calif. (KTXL) -- At 10 months old, Zoele Skinner is all smiles -- a joyful face that her mother thought she may never get the chance to see.

“We all know the risk of smoking when you’re pregnant and that’s not even near the smoke exposure ... what's in the smoke of a forest fire," said Anastasia Skinner. "All of these houses going down, you don’t know how many have asbestos or anything like that that you're breathing in.”

Skinner was in the final trimester of her pregnancy when the Camp Fire broke out last year. Wind sent the flames racing toward her Magalia home.

"Right there is when I said goodbye to my mom and my husband the first time," she said.

Alone, she tried to drive to safety but quickly found herself trapped in a sea of cars with hundreds of other people trying to escape the fast-moving flames.

“During that time, I started having contractions,” she said.

Scared, Skinner pulled over and cried out for help. Her cries were answered by Mickey Huber, a paramedic who was flagged down by good Samaritans.

“I just kept telling him that if I went into labor, I was going to die because I have a connected tissue disorder,” Skinner said.

Huber, the assistant chief for Butte County Emergency Medical Services, drove Skinner to safety. She was taken to a hospital in Chico to be checked out.

Three weeks later, baby Zoele Mickey Skinner was born at almost 10 pounds. She was named after the paramedic who helped rescue them.

Like Skinner, Shannon Zuiderweg was able to escape the wildfire from her home in Magalia with her dogs and her life.

“My neighbor came banging on my door and yelling my name and told me that we had to leave. That there was a fire and to pack up and get out,” Zuiderweg said.

One week later, a pregnancy test revealed another miracle.

“It was November 16th and it was positive. I cried and I was so happy,” she said.

Baby Aleia was born in August -- 12 days late via cesarean section.

Aside from the joy that comes with being a new mom, it’s a constant battle of the unknown for both mothers now wondering how the smoke and stress from the Camp Fire will impact their children.

“That is something we hope to be able to look at and not only for women and babies in our study but California-wide,” said Dr. Rebecca Schmidt, a University of California, Davis associate professor in the divisions of Epidemiology and Environmental and Occupational Health.

Schmidt is part of a group at UC Davis studying the effects of wildfires on pregnant women and their unborn children.

They started the study in 2017 after the destructive and deadly fires in Sonoma and Napa.

“Some of the first things we did look at were the symptoms in both the moms and their other children. And for the moms, the top response for symptoms was stress and anxiety,” Schmidt said.

So far, Schmidt has surveyed hundreds of women who breathed in heavy smoke from recent wildfires. They are taking samples from hair, saliva and umbilical cord blood.

The goal is to find out what chemicals these women and their unborn children were exposed to and what long-term effects they could have.

“The funding we have now only goes until, basically, birth or shortly after birth,” Schmidt told FOX40. “We are putting in grants and hoping to get funding to continue to follow these families up.”

Skinner and Zuiderweg have completed doctor Schmidt’s survey and are now waiting for the results.

“It could be years because they might follow them for a while but it would be nice to know,” Zuiderweg said.

“Literally praying with everything in me that it won’t affect her,” Skinner said. “But who knows at this point?”

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