How toxic wildlife smoke affects pregnant people


Sonny, a 10-month old, crawls through the tunnel of a playground surrounded by fresh cedar wood chips as the sun sets in October. His 4-year-old sister, Lenny, climbs the rungs of the jungle gym as their parents, Rebecca and Omar Chowaiki, keep watch.

“He is the happiest baby. He is so smiley,” Rebecca Chowaiki said of her son. “We named him Sonny because it was a hard pregnancy, and we knew there would be some obstacles he needed to get over, so we wanted him to have a sunny disposition.”

Sonny was diagnosed with a condition called bilateral clubfoot. A specialist put casts on his feet, he underwent surgery to cut his achilles tendon, and he wore orthotic shoes connected by a bar. He also received physical therapy for another condition called hypotonia, which meant he slouched when sitting and his head drooped. This amounted to months of medical appointments. “You just take it as it comes,” his mother said.

Smoking cigarettes during pregnancy can significantly increase the risk of a baby having clubfoot, but Sonny’s mother has never smoked a cigarette. “We’ve been breathing in buildings burning for the last four years,” she told EHN. “We’ve all been smoking in one way or another.”

The sky is blue today, but the grass and shrubs are crisp as kindling. Officials declared red flag warnings in recent weeks, meaning the dry and windy conditions are perfect for wildfires to ignite and rapidly spread. “When that happens, we brace ourselves,” Chowaiki said.

Since 2017, wildfires have swept Napa and nearby Sonoma each fall. The summers are hotter and last longer, and rain is less frequent. The fires have cast a thick fog of smoke over the region, lasting for weeks or months. Chowaiki breathed the smoke in 2017, 2018, and 2019 leading up to Sonny’s conception.

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EHN, 29 November 2021