Research shows climate change worsens allergies

By AKEIRA JENNINGS | April 25, 2019

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Public domain Climate change may increase allergies and the duration of the pollen season.

It’s that time of year again. As we welcome spring and the return of warm weather with open arms, we must also greet the pollen and other allergy-inducing irritants that can make this magical time of year unbearable. 

While it may already seem like allergy season lasts forever, researchers have warned that this feeling is not going to get better anytime soon, as allergy season is getting longer and intensified as a result of climate change.

Research has already revealed that rising temperatures have caused the pollen season to be 11 to 27 days longer, between 1995 and 2011. As a result of this increase in duration, stronger airborne allergens and allergy symptoms are also on the rise.

With 10 million Americans already plagued by “allergic asthma” — a condition in which asthma attacks are triggered by airborne allergens such as pollen — and another 18 million suffering from hay fever allergies, it is important to understand exactly what is at risk.

According to Dutch researchers, on average 330 deaths due to heart disease and respiratory conditions occurred on days with high pollen counts. 

They also found that on days when the pollen count was highest, there was a six percent increase in death from heart disease, 15 percent increase in death from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and a 17 percent increase in deaths due to pneumonia. 

Although neither Baltimore nor D.C. made this year’s Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) list of Worst Cities in the U.S. for asthmatics and for spring and fall allergies, these areas are known for their allergy inducing seasons. 

Over 200 unique species of trees line the streets of D.C. and around 120 species of trees can be found in Maryland. 

In an interview with the Washington Post, Susan Kosisky, chief microbiologist for the U.S. Army Centralized Allergen Extract Laboratory, explained that the diverse assortment of trees and weeds in the D.C. area eventually affects everyone. 

“We’ve got something for everybody here,” Kosisky said. “They say if you come to the Washington, D.C., region without an allergy, there is a chance you will leave with one.”

So how exactly do pollen and other airborne allergens affect us? When trees, weeds, and other plants release pollen into the air to fertilize other plants, the tiny particles enter our eyes, nose, and lungs and trigger our immune system. 

As a result, Immunoglobulin E (IgE), also known as antibodies, release several immune system chemicals, such as histamine to attack the perceived threat. These antibodies can cause allergy reactions such as runny eyes and nose, sneezing, congestion, asthma and itchy eyes and throat. 

While many are already familiar with this seasonal process, if fossil fuel emissions continue unabated, pollen production is projected to increase by 60 to 100 percent by around 2085, inducing allergen symptoms in more individuals, according to The Asthma and Allergy foundation of America. 

Leonard Bielory, professor and allergy specialist at Rutgers University Center of Environmental Prediction, also explained that climate change will result in more people experiencing seasonal allergies. 

“In general, the longer you’re exposed to an allergen, the more likely you are going to be sensitized to that allergen,” Bielory said in an interview with National Geographic.

While the worsening conditions are discouraging to many suffering from allergy symptoms, some view this as a direct call to action on climate change.

Darryn Waugh, professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences, explained that some notable impacts of climate change on human health are increases in heat waves, and drastic changes to air quality.  

He also suggested that learning about the correlation between the changing climate and human health will be consequential in the coming years. 

“Over the last few decades people are starting to look and see that if you are a public health professional you should be aware of the implications of climate health,” said Waugh in an interview with The News-Letter. “Some of the causes of climate change also impact health, so there is a strong coupling of these things.” 

So what can you do to enjoy the warm weather without letting allergies ruin the season?

- Learn which allergens affect you by going to your doctor and getting an allergy test 

- Download apps like Allergy Alert (Android, iOS) to check daily pollen counts so you can schedule your time outdoors when pollen levels are low. 

- Attend Symposiums to discuss innovative solutions to the air quality and climate related health crises.

- Join organizations that fight climate change on both a local and national level.

Leonard Bielory, professor and allergy specialist at Rutgers University Center of Environmental Prediction, also explained that climate change will result in more people experiencing seasonal allergies. 

“In general, the longer you’re exposed to an allergen, the more likely you are going to be sensitized to that allergen,” Bielory said in an interview with National Geographic.

While the worsening conditions are discouraging to many suffering from allergy symptoms, some view this as a direct call to action on climate change.

Darryn Waugh, Professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences, explains that some notable impacts of climate change on human health are increases in heat waves, and drastic changes to air quality.  He also suggests that learning about the correlation between the changing climate and human health will be consequential in the coming years. 

“Over the last few decades people are starting to look and see that if you are a public health professional you should be aware of the implications of climate health,” said Waugh in an interview with The News-Letter. “Some of the causes of climate change also impact health, so there is a strong coupling of these things.” 

So what can you do to enjoy the warm weather without letting allergies ruin the season?

  • Learn which allergens affect you by going to your doctor and getting an allergy test 
  • Download apps like Allergy Alert (Android, iOS) to check daily pollen counts so you can schedule your time outdoors when pollen levels are low. 
  • Attend Symposiums to discuss innovative solutions to the air quality and climate related health crises 
  • Join organizations that fight climate change on both a local and national level 
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