Wildland fire smoke research to study impact on children's immune system

STANFORD, Calif. (KGO) -- With strong winds forecast, smoke from the Kincade Fire is moving south. There's little doubt what symptoms people could develop as the smoke spreads.

"Your throat is dry and scratchy, and you can feel it when you breathe," said Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County's health officer.

Research started four years ago in Fresno to measure the impact of air pollution on children is now focusing on the effects of wildland fire smoke. Researchers at Stanford are analyzing blood samples a mass cytometer. They are isolating about 40 markers with an emphasis on T regulatory cells. Research scientist Dr. Mary Prunicki says T regulatory cells help to balance the body's immune system.

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In children, this is a critical concern because their lungs are still developing, and in air pollution studies, there are indications that changes in T regulatory cells could compromise their immune system over the long term.

"Those who are in high pollution areas may have fewer T regulatory cells, and they may not work as well, causing kind of a dysfunction in their immune pathway," said Dr. Prunicki.

Dr. Prunicki and her team at the Stanford School of Medicine believe wildland fire smoke is more toxic than smoke from forest fires because of the plastics and metal burned during a major conflagration.

"We feel that that particulate matter is more toxic," she said. "We don't know how that translates into changes in your immune system and your health."

One of the challenges of the project is finding research subjects willing to donate blood on an on-going basis to do the analysis.

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About 60 blood samples were taken from children in Sacramento after the Camp Fire last November, but that was after smoke had spread. The goal now is to get about 400 baseline blood samples before a major fire. Then they can compare that data to samples taken after exposure to wildland fire smoke.

Other research will look into the effectiveness of room sized air filters that trap minute particles.

Learning more about the impact of wildland fire smoke is an important public health issue. If you'd like to be a blood donor and participate in the research, you can learn more and sign up here.

Get the latest developments on the Kincade Fire here.
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