When people talk about climate change, typically the conversation only discusses the fact that the world is warming up. Side effects or consequences of climate change also revolve around the melting polar ice caps and glaciers causing rising sea levels. What many may not consider when this topic and discussion takes place is the health consquences, specifically of the allergy and asthma variety.
By Melissa Anderson
The issue of climate change has been ongoing for over 20 years. One study conducted in 2010 by the Asthema and Allergy Foundation of America and the National Wildlife Federation voiced those organizations’ rallying cry to combat climate change or suffer the health consquences.
“Unchecked climate change will worsen respiratory allergies for approximately 25 million Americans. Ragweed, the primary allergen trigger of fall hay fever, grows faster, produces more pollen per plant, and has higher allergenic content under increased carbon dioxide levels,” the study states.
Higher temperatures lead to an increase in allergens and harmful air pollutants. Over the past decade, the growing season has been lengthening. With a longer warm season comes a longer pollen seasons – which lengthens the allergy and asthma episodes. As a result, there is a notable drop in productive work and school days. One aspect that makes Cavalier County unique is the canola and the bees that love it.
“We have pollen everywhere! Our weeds, crops and trees are producing it like crazy, and that is due, in part, to the help of our elevated bee population, but that is a good thing,” Cavalier County Weed Officer Leon Pederson said. Pederson is quick to point out that these pollinators are very helpful to crops, trees and native flora.
“Granted, we have been inundated with a huge number of bee producers, but in the past couple years, with bee producer regulations being enforced, we have come to live amicably with our elevated bee population,” Pederson added.
Longer growing seasons and warmer temperatures are also shifting where and when plants can grow. Despite the stalled-out spring in Cavalier County, most places are experiencing spring an average of 10 to 14 days earlier than it did just 20 years ago. The preferred ranges for many species are shifting northward and to higher elevations as the areas that were once their normal homes become too warm for them to grow.
The combined effect of warming temperatures and more carbon dioxide means that plants have a greater capacity for growth. Carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas that is the primary cause of our warming planet, increases the growth rate of many plants and increases the amount and potency of pollen. As the plants grow more vigorously and produce more pollen than ever before, allergy sufferers face very long summers and falls.
The primary culprit behind allergies is the pollen plants produce in order to reproduce. Once realeased into the air, the pollen makes its way into the human body where the immune system goes to work. Sniffling and sneezing are the result of the human immune system mistaking the pollen for a parasite.
Allergies are an overreaction of the immune system to substances that generally do not affect other individuals. Besides the tell-tale sneezing and sniffling, allergens can cause coughing and itching. Allergic reactions range from merely bothersome to life-threatening. Some allergies are seasonal like hay fever. Allergies have also been associated with chronic conditions like sinusitis and asthma.
“Allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the U.S. with an annual cost in excess of $18 billion. More than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year,” the Centers for Disease Control states.
It isn’t just the pollen from weeds making allergies and asthma sufferers more miserable. The seemingly neverending and larger than ever wildfires taking place also cause havoc to those with allergies and asthma. Smoke exposure increases acute (or sudden onset) respiratory illness, respiratory and cardiovascular hospitalizations, and medical visits for lung illnesses. The frequency of wildfires is expected to increase as drought conditions become more prevalent.
To add insult to injury, fungal spores, which can cause allergic and asthmatic reactions in both outdoor and indoor air, could also become more abundant as carbon dioxide and temperatures increase. Changes in temperature and precipitation regimes due to climate change may also affect the abundance of fungal spores in indoor air following extreme floods or droughts, both of which are expected to become more common in the coming decades. Extremely hot and dry conditions might also exacerbate fungal allergies, especially as more people rely on air conditioning. Improper installation or management of air conditioning systems can create conditions ripe for growing mold.
Besides investing in allergy medications and being aware of the air quality index for allergies, there isn’t much that those who suffer from pollen-related allergies can do. There are some tips to minimize the impact of pollen close to home.
• Pollen gets trapped in hair and clothing, so shower after spending time outdoors, wash bedding and clothing frequently, and vacuum regularly. Use saline spray or a neti pot to flush pollen from your nasal passages.
• Choose plants for your garden that don’t produce airborne pollen. Luckily, most plants with large, showy blooms have heavy pollen grains designed to stick to insects rather than blow in the wind and aren’t big allergy triggers.
• Plant female trees and shrubs. Male plants don’t produce fruit or seeds, which some consider messy, but female plants don’t produce pollen, and the fruits and seeds they do produce will help attract birds.
While these steps can minimize your personal exposure to allergens, it’s important to realize that pollen can be carried long distances by the wind and people will always be exposed to some level of allergens in the environment
“I believe we will always have a huge pollen count up here in God’s country, but without pollen we would never have the beautiful landscape we all enjoy. So, if you do have pollen allergies, I encourage you to see a doctor or take the over-the-counter medication that makes you feel better because the pollen is here to stay,” Pederson said.
We can responsibly manage the problems facing our environment by taking sensible steps toward protecting human health and safety. Whether measures are meant to reduce future climate change impacts or to address the health impacts of climate change that are happening already, early action provides the greatest health benefits. It makes sense to invest in creating the strongest climate-healthy adaptation and preparedness programs we can.
CDC The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index (Airnow.gov) is a tool that helps the public quickly learn when air quality is likely to reach unhealthy levels. These forecasts help individuals reduce their risk by altering the type and location of their physical activity.