In the spring, tree pollen falls so thick that people write messages in the green fuzz on their car windows. In the fall, ragweed sprouts not just along roads and in fields, but in gardens, street plantings, and sidewalk cracks. Such is the new reality of Jackson, Mississippi, the city deemed fall 2016’s Allergy Capital of the United States by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
“Over the past decade, climate change has made my patients’ wheezing and sneezing steadily worse,” says Dr. Gailen Marshall, an allergist in Jackson. Temperatures are the hottest ever on record, he explains, which makes pollen season longer. “Existing patients rush to visit me,” he says. “And new ones flood through my door.”
Jackson’s situation might be an extreme example, but it’s far from unique. “Rising temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, and increases in heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are affecting air quality all across the United States in many ways that are not good for us,” says Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist and deputy director of NRDC’s Science Center. Not only is the changing climate boosting production of plant allergens, she says, but it’s leading to smog, mold outbreaks, and wildfires as well.
A new NRDC analysis finds that about 4 in 10 Americans live in areas where both smog and pollen-producing ragweed are present. This double whammy of air quality threats poses health hazards to us all—but especially to the more than 24 million Americans with asthma and 50 million with seasonal allergies, says Knowlton. “Unless we take preventive measures, these shifts will compromise our quality of life, our work and school productivity, and our safety and health.”
So what exactly is happening as the planet warms, and how can you protect yourself? Let’s take a look.
Temperatures and carbon dioxide levels are setting record highs, and in response, plants produce more of the pollen that triggers itchy eyes, runny noses, scratchy throats, respiratory problems, and other ailments in people with asthma and allergies.
More people are allergic to ragweed pollen than to all other pollens combined. The autumn ragweed season is now up to three weeks longer than it was 20 years ago, reports a 2011 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of asthma is up 21 percent since 2001, while rates of pollen-induced allergic rhinitis (also known as hay fever) have also been steadily rising.
Sunlight combined with air pollution creates the toxic cocktail known as ground-level smog. And it’s no longer just major metropolises that are afflicted. “Areas downwind of cities—suburban communities and rural regions, too—are seeing higher smog levels on the hottest days,” says Knowlton.
The American Lung Association reports that now nearly 40 percent of U.S. residents live in areas that often have unhealthy ozone levels or other types of pollution. Smog can trigger breathing and cardiovascular problems among allergy and asthma sufferers, but for anyone, the EPA says, breathing ozone is akin to “getting a sunburn on your lungs.”
“Climate change is fueling not only more frequent intense rain, but storms like Hurricane Sandy that are of greater intensity,” says Knowlton. “As a result, buildings damaged by these events can harbor more moisture, and thus more mold growth.”
Rising sea levels, increased humidity, and greater river and coastal flooding can expose more homes to mold growth. And that mold can grow “on virtually any substance,” according to the EPA, including wood, paper, carpet, and food. The consequence? Wheezing, rashes, and eye irritation for people who are sensitive to it.
Rising temperatures in dry areas are making conditions even drier—and sparking dangerous wildfires like those that engulfed a record nine million acres of California, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and other western states in 2015.
Because smoke from fires can travel far downwind, it’s not only people living near the blazes who are affected. For example, when scientists studied the broad-ranging effects of wildfires that struck Quebec in 2002, they discovered the fires were linked to a thirtyfold spike in airborne fine-particle concentrations in Baltimore, a whopping 700 miles away.
What to do about it
To breathe easier, experts recommend the following:
- If you exercise outside, do it in the morning, when ozone levels tend to be lower.
- Avoid auto exhaust and heavily trafficked roads when jogging or walking. If you can, hit forest trails and walking paths instead.
- Track pollen counts from the National Allergy Bureau.
- Monitor your local air-quality index, or AQI, which assesses the danger of pollution and ozone smog, and sign up for alerts about wildfires or other issues that might affect your area.
- On days when pollen counts or the AQI are especially high, consider spending more time indoors with windows and doors closed. (If you’re running an air conditioner, set it to “recirculate.”)
- If you do spend time outside on days when the air quality is poor, take a shower and change into clean clothes afterward to wash off pollen and other fine particles that may have collected on your skin, hair, and clothing.
- Remove seasonal pollen from your home by frequently washing bedding and by vacuuming using a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.
- Reduce indoor humidity and moisture that can lead to mold growth by using dehumidifiers, increasing ventilation, and using exhaust fans.
- Urge your state representatives to support carbon pollution–cutting legislation, to nip the health-harming effects of climate change at their source.