Researchers worry Fort McMurray wildfire will hurt health of moms and newborns

What are the impact of the Fort McMurray wildfire on the health of mothers and newborns? Researchers from the University of Alberta are trying to find out, as past research says natural disasters can affect a baby's development.

'Not everyone reacts the same way to a natural disaster but some people are more stressed than other people'

Researchers examine impact of stress on unborn and newborn babies during the Fort McMurray wildfire evacuation. 0:46

Megan Jahn was pregnant when the Fort McMurray wildfire forced thousands to flee her hometown. The turmoil of the evacuation, combined with the natural stresses of pregnancy, were enough to send her into a panic attack.

She knew the event wasn't healthy for her baby.

"What was even stressing me out more was the fact that I was pregnant and I couldn't be stressed out about it," said Jahn, who was out-of-town when the wildfire hit, but remained horrified knowing her loved ones were still in the burning city.

"So I'm trying not to be stressed out about it. But how do you not?"

University of Alberta researchers have recruited Jahn and other Fort McMurray mothers to study the impact of disasters on pregnant women and their newborns. They're looking for 500 women who were either pregnant when the fires broke out, who recently gave birth, or who are pregnant now.

Megan Jahn and her husband welcomed their daughter Violet into the world at a stressful time during the wildfire evacuation. (Submitted)

Researchers started their work as soon as the wildfire prompted one of Canada's largest evacuations. The wildfire that ripped through Fort McMurray caused over 88,000 people to desperately flee. Researchers estimate as many as 1,200 were among them.

Although no one died, over 2,400 homes were destroyed and mental health referrals have skyrocketed in the wake of the disaster.

Previous studies done during the Quebec ice storm and floods in Australia found natural disasters such as ice storms or floods have resulted in shorter pregnancy periods and earlier deliveries.

The studies conclude this could impact the language, behavioural and physical development of babies. They've also seen increased rates of diabetes and blood pressure as children get older.

"Not everyone reacts the same way to a natural disaster but some people are more stressed than other people," lead researcher Dr. David Olson said.

"The higher the levels of stress there's more of an adverse rate of pregnancy outcomes and a higher rate of poor development trajectories."

Monitoring and helping

The study isn't only monitoring the long-term health effects of the fire, it will also help a sample of mothers by getting them to write personal entries daily. Previous studies on the effects of natural disasters on pregnant women haven't had a component that helps mothers, Olson said.

"It's been used effectively for large groups of people in other situations, like college students taking tests when they get stressed and military veterans returning from conflict zones."

This is what was left of Megan Jahn’s home after May’s wildfire. (Submitted)

Jahn will be taking part in the study, even though her three-month-old daughter, Violet, was born at a healthy seven pounds. Like all mothers, she's hoping for the best.

"So for the future, what does it hold for Violet? I guess that will be to be determined."

The study hopes to follow mothers and their babies for two years.

Researchers are looking for more women to participate in the study, whether they still live in Fort McMurray or not.

Volunteers can sign up at here.