Itchy eyes? Sneezing? When spring comes around, many of us know the symptoms well.
Are your allergies getting worse? Climate change may be to blame
For more than 20 years, physicians at Children’s Mercy Hospital have used a machine on the roof to collect daily pollen and mold counts to better understand allergens on a day-to-day basis.
But scientists have found something else over time: Pollen and mold counts are getting higher and lasting longer than they used to. Not just in Kansas City, but across North America.
The increase has led to worsening symptoms for many patients, said Jay Portnoy, a pediatric allergist at Children’s Mercy and professor at UMKC School of Medicine.
“Now, in addition to sneezing, we’re seeing intense problems with eyes — terribly itchy eyes,” he said.
They’re also seeing more people with oral allergies, in which foods such as melons, apples, and carrots have a cross-reaction with pollen, Portnoy said.
“Their mouth will become itchy and sensitized because of the pollen,” he said. “In Kansas City, when we started collecting the data, it was unusual for the pollen count to get over 1,000 (particles per cubic meter).
Now it’s pretty routine to get up to 8,000. We never saw that before.
“It’s not a hoax. It’s actually happening. It’s not something to panic about or get anxious about, but it’s causing more disease and it’s something to be aware of.
Anything to stop the progression of climate change would be helpful, but that’s politics, and I won’t go there.”
One part of climate change leading to worsening allergies is the prolonged pollen season.
Starting about 30 years ago, the growing season in general around the Northern Hemisphere “rather abruptly changed to a new normal,” with earlier springs and later falls, said Mark Schwartz, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee geographer.
In the 48 contiguous states, 2012 was the earliest growing season on record until it was edged out by 2017, he said.
Across the U.S., fall’s first frost is happening about nine days on average later since 30 years ago, while the last frost of spring is happening almost four days earlier, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
That means the growing season in between is nearly two weeks longer. And some of the stuff that’s growing is making us sneeze and suffer.
High ragweed days across America swelled from 1990 to 2016, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Lewis Ziska.
In Kansas City, where Children’s Mercy helped participate in Ziska’s study, the number of high pollen days jumped from 58 to 81.
“Allergies and asthma are on the rise. Climate change isn’t the only reason, but it contributes,” said Howard Frumkin, former environmental health chief at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now at the Wellcome Trust in London.
Frumkin said ragweed and poison ivy trigger more powerful allergic reactions with higher carbon dioxide levels.
So what are allergy sufferers to do?
Most people will try to tough it out with more over-the-counter medications, eye drops, and nasal sprays, Portnoy said.
They may feel like antihistamines aren’t as effective as they used to be, but it’s really just a case of the pollen or mold counts being higher that day, he said.
If the symptoms last months and can’t be controlled, it’s time to start looking at alternatives, Portnoy said. Children’s Mercy is doing more allergy shots and testing than ever before.
Urban air pollution and climate change
According to the World Health Organization, air pollution is closely associated with climate change and, in particular, with global warming. In addition to melting of ice and snow, rising sea level, and flooding of coastal areas, global warming is leading to a tropicalization of temperate marine ecosystems. Moreover, the effects of air pollution on airway and lung diseases are well documented as reported by the World Allergy Organization.
Scientific literature was searched for studies investigating the effect of the interaction between air pollution and climate change on allergic and respiratory diseases.
Since the 1990s, a multitude of articles and reviews have been published on this topic, with many studies confirming that the warming of our planet is caused by the “greenhouse effect” as a result of increased emission of “greenhouse” gases. Air pollution is also closely linked to global warming: the emission of hydrocarbon combustion products leads to increased concentrations of biological allergens such as pollens, generating a mixture of these particles called particulate matter (PM). The concept is that global warming is linked to the emission of hydrocarbon combustion products, since both carbon dioxide and heat increase pollen emission into the atmosphere, and all these particles make up PM10. However, the understanding of the mechanisms by which PM affects human health is still limited.
Therefore, several studies are trying to determine the causes of global warming. There is also evidence that increased concentrations of air pollutants and pollens can activate inflammatory mediators in the airways. Our Task Force has prepared a Decalogue of rules addressing public administrators, which aims to limit the amount of allergenic pollen in the air without sacrificing public green areas.
Several studies underscore the significant risks of global warming on human health due to increasing levels of air pollution. The impact of climate change on respiratory diseases appears well documented. The last decades have seen a rise in the concentrations of pollens and pollutants in the air.
This rise parallels the increase in the number of people presenting with allergic symptoms (e.g., allergic rhinitis, conjunctivitis, and asthma), who often require emergency medical care. Our hope is that scientists from different disciplines will work together with institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and lay organizations to limit the adverse health effects of air pollution and global warming.
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