Dear EarthTalk: Could climate change really make my allergies worse?
L. Pulaski, New Bern, North Carolina
Pollen may be an unfortunate contributor to poor health in the first place, but there are signs that the nuisance will get worse. Warm weather contributes to an increase in pollen counts, and air pollution can concentrate it. Climate change is now a known contributor to changes not only in the seas and atmosphere, but also to altering the life cycles and even biological processes of everyday plants.
In fact, carbon dioxide pollution is particularly pernicious in this regard. Not only does it cause the vast majority of global warming in general, but it also has a strong link to allergens. Plants grow larger in the presence of more carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas. In the process, they produce more flowers with greater amounts of pollen. Combining bigger plants, more flowers and more pollen means longer allergy seasons.
Additionally, some plants will produce more pollen when concentrated in urban “heat islands” that trap and concentrate heat. Examples of plants affected by this include poison ivy and ragweed. Poison ivy grows in greater abundance and larger sizes. It also produces more irritants such as the chemical urushiol under these conditions. Ragweed produces more pollen when temperatures rise and may even produce more irritants.
Another type of irritant we need to be concerned about is mold, especially in household materials such as walls or insulation materials. Persistent exposure to mold can lead to infection and other respiratory disorders. Carbon dioxide production, fluctuating humidity levels and temperature changes – all typical of our new climate – further promote mold growth.
The pernicious hold of allergies on human health has existed for millennia, but it takes little imagination to realize that this incipient health crisis will grow ever more insidious. Research clearly shows that pollen seasons are getting longer.
Although reducing climate change requires a concerted global effort, there are ways to reduce the impact of allergens on our own health. To start, try landscaping with trees that produce less pollen, such as female trees and bushes when landscaping.
Ways to support political and civil society initiatives include donations to asthma and allergy research centers such as the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America to help understand other causes and mitigations. Understanding what triggers allergen production and how it affects us will help ordinary people live healthier and happier lives.
Allergies may be getting worse, but losing hope in the fight against climate change as a whole would be a bad turn. Allergy changes are simply a tough wake-up call to invest in further climate efforts. Reducing emissions will reduce the production of greenhouse gases that cause warming temperatures and pollen production.