Rising sea levels, loss of animal habitat, and an increase in dramatic weather events are the most talked about impacts of climate change. But could Earth’s warming also be bad news for people with respiratory conditions?
Climate Change and Allergies
- Pollen is one of the most common allergic irritants. Around 25 million Americans experience seasonal allergies in reaction to various plant pollens.
- These tiny particles are released by trees, grasses and weeds to fertilize other plants. Most people don't notice pollen in the air, while others become sensitized to certain types of pollen.
- Once a person is sensitized, their immune system attacks pollen particles which causes allergy symptoms.
- Airborne pollen is one of the most difficult allergy triggers to avoid. People who are severely affected might need to limit their time outdoors and take daily control medication.
There are two main ways that climate change and allergies are linked:
1. Extended pollen seasons
- Climate change is felt the most dramatically in colder environments, where average temperatures are increasing at the highest rates.
- These higher temperatures lead to delayed frosts in fall and winter. For plants with pollen seasons that peak in late summer or early fall (like allergy-inducing ragweed), pollen production is extended until frost finally arrives.
- Warmer temperatures also mean spring comes sooner, meaning an earlier start to tree pollen season.
2. Increased pollen production
Not only are pollen seasons being stretched out due to early spring and late fall, but climate change could increase how much pollen some plants produce.
- Greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere trap radiation and heat from the sun. This greenhouse effect occurred naturally before industrialization, but increased human activity produces extra greenhouse gases that trap more heat in the atmosphere.
- Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas used by plants in photosynthesis. Experiments have shown that plants like ragweed and timothy grass produce more pollen when exposed to higher concentrations of carbon dioxide.
- Ozone, another greenhouse gas, can actually damage plant cells. But one study found that an increase in both ozone and carbon dioxide still resulted in Timothy grass producing more pollen.
- Some scientists predict that pollen counts will double from 2012 to 2040. This could lead to more people being sensitized and developing allergies, and cause worse symptoms in people with existing allergies.
Climate Change and Asthma
Allergies aren't the only respiratory condition affected by climate change. With emissions from industrial activity and vehicles increasing in some parts of the world, people with asthma may find symptoms triggered more frequently.
- The EPA’s National Clean Diesel Campaign placed stricter emission standards on new vehicles and offered grants that upgraded the engines of 20,000 school buses.
- Research conducted on school buses before and after the new standards were implemented found that markers of inflammation in the lungs of children without asthma dropped by 16%. Those who already had asthma saw more significant results, with anywhere from 20-31% improvement in lung inflammation.
Is pollution causing more asthma to develop?
School buses aren’t the only source of greenhouse gas and pollutants. Improving engine standards may help ensure fewer asthma symptoms on the way to and from school. But the overall amount of pollution could still be causing an increase in asthma cases.
- Several studies have found increased rates of asthma in children who have early-life exposure to pollutants like nitrogen dioxide (one of the components of smog). Scientists theorize that air pollution may affect the structure of lungs as they develop, and could also cause changes to the immune system.
- More studies need to be conducted to investigate links between emissions and asthma. Including if specific types of pollution are to blame and why only some children in heavily polluted environments develop asthma.
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