Allergies Health Conditions Hub

The Crossroads of Climate Change and Allergies

A new report finds areas with high ragweed and ozone levels are making millions of Americans sick

Millions of Americans live in regions with both high ragweed pollen counts and unhealthy ozone levels, worsening asthma and respiratory allergies, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. About 50 million Americans have some type of nasal allergy, and asthma rates have increased from 20 million in 2000 to 26 million in 2010.

The report, the first to look at how ragweed prevalence and high ozone smog collide, found that Americans living in the “sneeziest and wheeziest” cities and regions—mainly cities from Richmond, Virginia, to Atlanta; Philadelphia to Chicago; and Oklahoma City to Los Angeles—are more likely to suffer severe allergy symptoms and to be more ill than people exposed to ragweed or ozone alone. The report goes a step further than the Asthma and Allergy Foundation’s annual asthma cities ranking and identifies five regions of the country (encompassing some 278 counties nationwide) where the intersection of ragweed and ozone are highest: the Los Angeles Basin, the Great Lakes region, the St. Louis area, the Mid-Atlantic states and New England.

“Millions of us are sneezing and wheezing from allergies and asthma worsened by climate change-fueled ragweed pollen and ozone smog pollution,” said Juan Declet-Barreto, lead author of the NRDC report. “These are vulnerable communities where there is ragweed presence and the 2008 EPA ozone standard is being exceeded. This double-whammy health threat will only intensify, and affect more people, if we don’t take steps to reduce climate change now. Everybody deserves to breathe clean air.”

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Pediatricians are seeing the effects of climate change on health first-hand.

“Allergies are so common that antihistamines and corticosteroids are widely prescribed, with one in three of my patients being prescribed over the past month, including infants,” said Yolanda Whyte, M.D., an Atlanta pediatrician and community outreach director of the National Medical Association’s environmental task force. “Many young children in metro Atlanta wheeze. About a quarter of children at one elementary school where I recently spoke had an inhaler or nebulizer at home.”

Alexandria, Virginia, pediatrician Samantha Adhoot, M.D., is experiencing something similar in her practice. “I have had two admissions this spring that resulted in severe asthma attacks requiring hospitalization for children under the age of 2,” she said. “Child health is inextricably linked to climate change. They are not separate.”

With the exception of 1998, the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2000, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Why? Scientists say climate change, caused by carbon pollution, is spurring hotter temperatures.

Reports show more than 16 percent of American children have hay fever or respiratory allergy. This is due, in part, to an earlier spring thaw. “Over the last 20 years, allergy season has increased, due to shorter winters, particularly in northern regions, by 20 days,” Dr. Adhoot said. “Most people feel that their allergies have gotten worse, and they have. Total pollen counts have increased by over 40 percent over the last 20 years. Ragweed plants produce twice as much pollen.”

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The NRDC’s report sounds a dire warning that continued climate change will make millions more Americans ill, and calls on the EPA to finalize standards that strengthen the health standard for ozone pollution.

“We’re seeing more and more antihistamines being created, more nasal steroids and more being available over the counter,” Dr. Whyte said. “According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study, an estimated one in two Americans is on some prescription medication. We’d rather focus on prevention. We can’t prevent pollen from trees, but we can prevent exposure.”

NRDC’s report also provides the following tips to avoid overexposure to ragweed pollen and ozone smog, especially if you or family members have allergies or asthma:

  • Keep track of pollen counts in your area by following media reports.
  • Put your car and home air conditioners on recirculate. Keep windows and doors closed, especially on high pollen or ozone days during allergy season.
  • Shower and wash your hair after working or playing outdoors to remove pollen. Change your clothes.
  • Save strenuous exercise for lower ozone days or “do them in the morning,” Declet-Barreto said.
  • Wear a mask for outside chores.
  • Talk to your physician if you have allergies or asthma. Take appropriate medications.

Photo: Wavebreakmedia/Depositphotos

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