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 spring 2015’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. And as cold fronts move south in the fall, they dump pollen from northern states down on the town as well. “Existing patients rush to visit me,” he says. “And new ones flood through my door.”
Jackson’s situation might be an extreme example (hence its snazzy title), but it’s far from unique. “Rising temperatures and heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are affecting air quality all over the United States, in countless ways that are not good for us,” says Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist and deputy director of NRDC’s Science Center. Not only are those higher temperatures boosting production of plant allergens, she says, but they’re leading to smog, mold outbreaks, and wildfires as well.
These changes pose health hazards to us all—but especially to the 26 million Americans with asthma and the 45 million with seasonal allergies, says Knowlton. “Unless we take preventive measures, these shifts will compromise our quality of life, our work 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 breaking record highs, and this is causing plants to produce more of the pollen that triggers rashes, respiratory problems, and other ailments in people with asthma and allergies.
The autumn season for ragweed pollen—to which more people are allergic than all other pollens combined—is now almost a month 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 28 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 than ever before,” says Knowlton.
The American Lung Association reports that now nearly half 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 creating not only more storms, but storms like Hurricane Sandy that are of greater intensity,” says Knowlton. “As a result, buildings damaged by these events are harboring more moisture, and thus more mold.”
Rising sea levels, increased humidity, and greater river and coastal flooding—all combined with spiking temperatures—are also spurring more mold. And that mold can grow “on virtually any substance,” according to the EPA, including wood, paper, carpet, and food. The consequence? Wheezing, rashes, eye irritation, and even fevers among those who are especially 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 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 30-fold spike in 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.
- Stay at least 50 feet from auto exhaust and heavily trafficked roads when jogging or walking; if you can, hit forest trails and walking paths instead.
- Track pollen counts.
- 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 are high or the AQI is bad, stay 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 HEPA filter.
- Reduce indoor humidity and prevent mold by using dehumidifiers, increasing ventilation, and using exhaust fans.
- Urge your state representatives to support pollution-cutting legislation.