Allergies are getting worse as the planet warms

Allergies are getting worse as the planet warms

Allergies are worsening and allergy seasons lengthening as the planet warms due to our use of fossil fuels. CBS news reports:

Rising temperatures from climate change and more carbon dioxide in the air are causing many pollen-producing plants to bloom earlier – and last longer – thus prolonging allergy season.

Dr. Joseph Shapiro, an allergist and immunologist in Los Angeles, says his office is now flooded with patients year round.

“New patient visits are coming in at different times of year that I did not use to see,” he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50 million Americans suffer from allergies each year. While allergies are more common in children, they can occur for the first time at any age.

With allergy seasons growing longer and more intense, experts say many people are developing seasonal allergies for the first time well into their adulthood.

How much longer are allergy seasons? This EPA map shows how much the seasons grew in just the twenty years from 1995-2015:

allergies getting worse as planet warms

With pollen counts likely to double by the year 2040, we can expect many more Americans to develop allergies, and allergies to worsen for those who already suffer.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, calling global warming “like Miracle-Gro for weeds,” explains:

Three main factors related to climate change fuel increases in allergens. 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. Rising temperatures extend the growing season and the duration of allergy season. And an extended spring season alters the amounts of blooms and fungal spores that are known to exacerbate allergy symptoms.

CBS reports that these more intense allergy seasons are bringing many new patients to doctor’s offices:

“It’s the inevitable consequence of continued exposure to these really high pollen counts and severe allergy seasons,” said Dr. Neeta Ogden, an allergy specialist and spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. “With repeated exposure anyone can get ‘sensitized’ and develop seasonal allergies.”

Dr. Aidan Long, clinical director of Allergy and Immunology at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, explained that there’s both a genetic and environmental component to allergies. “A certain number of us are predisposed to develop allergies from our parents,” he said. “But when people start developing symptoms depends on exposure. There’s a certain threshold of exposure and once they reach it, they will then start experiencing allergy symptoms.”

And for some, the new allergies come not from breathing in pollen, but from what they eat. I discovered this myself over the past several years, when around the middle of May when I ate blueberries they not only tasted like chemicals, but my tongue would get uncomfortably tingly. I assumed at first that I had just gotten a bad batch of berries. The second year, I thought maybe it had to do with chemicals used in the fields. Finally, last May, when it happened again, I thought the timing was too coincidental. I already suffered from seasonal allergies, I thought, so perhaps this could be a variation. Investigation led me to “oral allergy syndrome” (OAS), which occurs when people already sensitive to certain pollens eat foods with proteins that mimic the air-borne pollens that trigger their allergies.

“The most commonly cited example,” says an article in Medscape, “is that of birch pollen-sensitive patients with allergic rhinitis or conjunctivitis, who become sensitive to raw fruits, vegetables, soy, and some nuts.” I have a birch tree in my backyard, and my reaction to the blueberries is during the time the tree is pollinating. Blueberries are among the fruits with protein that mimics birch pollen.

I have my culprit, and will watch my birch tree closely in May and June for the beginning and end of its pollen season. But for many OAR sufferers, multiple foods may be involved and the allergy may be more severe. As more people develop pollen-caused allergies in the coming decades, we can also expect more people to develop oral allergy syndrome.

Top Photo: Projections for pollen production as carbon dioxide increases, via Climate Central

About the author

David Backes

I have always been drawn to where the wild things are: the natural world around me, and the wilderness within. As a writer, speaker, and university professor, I have for decades focused on this combination of nature and the human spirit. In recent years, my spiritual journey has added another lens: social, environmental and intergenerational justice. Put it all together and you’ve got The Earth Keeper, a blog of integral ecology and the prophetic imagination. The Earth Keeper may at times make you feel hopeful or inspired; it may make you feel uncomfortable or defensive or even angry. I hope it often will be challenging, and always interesting.

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