Climate Change-ing your Allergies

It’s an absolutely gorgeous weekend across much of the eastern US. If you’re among the millions of Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies, however, the layer of yellow tree pollen that's settled across car hoods and roofs is your nemesis – it’s most likely what’s making you sneeze and wheeze today. Each morning you wake up hoping today will be better than yesterday, this season will be better than last, and that some day those pesky allergies will just disappear altogether.

With spring in full swing, you may want to check out the National Wildlife Federation (NWF)’s new report, Extreme Allergies and Global Warming. This report contains a wealth of information about how global warming is affecting some health-relevant plants and animals in the US -- trees, grasses, weeds like ragweed and poison ivy, molds, even stinging insects -- that have a great deal to do with your allergies, and the effects are anything but what you’d hoped for. 

The NWF report mentions an earlier study by NRDC, Sneezing and Wheezing: How Global Warming Could Increase Ragweed Allergies, Air Pollution, and Asthma. The NRDC report was the first to map areas of the US where people’s health is challenged by the “double whammy” of ozone smog and ragweed allergens. In late summer, rising heat and carbon dioxide concentrations can worsen both air pollutants.

The National Arbor Day Foundation changed the Plant Hardiness Zones in 2006 in response to rising temperatures and changing climate conditions in the US. The NWF study shows how those Zones changed, plus it goes a step further by looking into the future: it projects how the distribution of allergenic pollen-bearing trees could change in the US, in response to a changing climate. This means that many areas now unaccustomed to the annual ritual of runny noses and watery, itchy eyes may lose that advantage in years to come. NWF finds that sixteen states are “hotspots” at risk of increases in tree pollen by the end of the century.

  • States at risk of high increases in allergenic tree pollen include: Arkansas, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and West Virginia. 
  • States at risk of moderate increases include: Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

The report by lead author Amanda Staudt, Ph.D. and others, was prepared with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Mike Tringale, director of External Affairs at the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, reported in a press release that, “Allergies and asthma combined already affect about 50 million Americans and cost nearly $27 billion in medical costs and nearly $6 billion in lost productivity and earnings.” Do the math: as climate change worsens this situation, the costs could be enormous and for allergy and asthma sufferers, worsening symptoms could diminish the quality of life.

Whether your enjoy playing at the ballfield, lying on a grassy lawn, or tending to your garden, there are strategies for staying outdoors during the pollen season. As we suggest in our Sneezing and Wheezing report, you can check the radio, TV, or visit online news outlets for daily pollen reports, in order to plan outdoor activities for lower-pollen days. The National Allergy Bureau has a website with pollen monitoring data from data collection sites around the country.

The call of a sunny spring day is hard to resist, and healthy exercise is something we all need. It’s important to bathe or shower to remove pollen that may have collected on your skin and in your hair after you spend time outdoors on high-pollen days. For the same reasons, it’s a good idea to launder bedding and clothing, and vacuum regularly during pollen seasons.

Cutting global warming pollution can help minimize future allergy risks by reducing the carbon dioxide emissions on which pollen-producing plants and toxic weeds can thrive. It also improves local air quality by reducing emissions of health-harming co-pollutants like particles, smog precursors and toxic chemicals. But whatever you do, realize that the seasons - and quite possibly your own health - are already being affected by climate change.