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Are Your Allergies Worsening? You Can Blame People for That

Are Your Allergies Worsening? You Can Blame People for That

Written by Minda Berbeco

Have your eyes been running more in the spring?  Are you sneezing more in the fall?  After this frigid and snowy winter, it may be hard to remember what the allergy season feels like. But if you’re one of the more than 80 million Americans who suffer from seasonal allergies, you might recall that last year’s allergy season was a doozy in many parts of the U.S. And it turns out that people might at least be partially responsible for a more allergenic environment. As we change the climate, many of the plants that terrorize us through the allergy season are becoming more pernicious. While a warming climate lengthens the pollen season, increased carbon dioxide is making some allergens more noxious.

This change is most obvious with the troublesome ragweed plants, which are the curse of many allergy sufferers. A group of flowering plants found all over the United States, the hardy ragweed loves a disturbed environment. It pops up along roadways and at the edge of agricultural fields, colonizing abandoned lots. Ragweed is common enough that you most certainly have seen them before, and it is highly likely that a ragweed plant’s pollen has made you or a loved one sneeze at least once.

Ragweed pollen is one of the largest causes of allergic rhinitis – AKA hay fever – the sneezy, runny nose reaction many people are familiar with. Unlike many other plants, ragweed doesn’t ring in the spring with large flowering blooms. Rather, they flower in the late summer, releasing their pollen just in time for a congested fall. Normally this plant is trouble enough, having a pollen season that can last between two and three months. Now, with a longer frost-free season (the amount of time between the spring thaw and fall freeze) due to a warming climate, the ragweed plant has a longer time period to get larger and hardier and to produce pollen.

A longer growing season is only one part of the problem. Ragweed also responds positively to increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide levels before the Industrial Revolution were about 280 parts per million; with the increase in emissions through the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities, those levels have recently reached 400 parts per million. Research has demonstrated that plants grown in pre-industrial CO2 concentrations produced less pollen than those grown in current levels. Worse yet, when these plants were grown in concentrations predicted for the future, pollen levels continued to go up. For those of us with ragweed allergies, this is not good news.

Those who are familiar with allergens, though, know that it’s not just how large the plant is, or even how much pollen it’s producing that can increase the risk of an allergic reaction. There’s also the potency of the pollen itself – the amount of allergen in the pollen. It turns out that ragweed plants grown in higher CO2 environments carry more allergen in the pollen.

Larger plants, creating more pollen, which is itself more allergenic? Sounds like a terrific future. But of course, it’s not the future, it’s occurring right now. How do your sinuses feel at the thought of that?

These findings are not unique to ragweed plants. Poison ivy, the bane of hikers everywhere, is looking like it might also prosper in a higher CO2 environment. Researchers have found that when grown under high CO2 conditions, poison ivy became larger and produced a more allergenic form of urushiol, the active compound that leads to contact dermatitis, the red itchy rash everyone is familiar with.

Given how important environmental factors like temperature, rainfall and CO2 levels are to all ecosystems, the question remains how other allergenic plants will be impacted by a changing climate. As flowers bloom earlier, with a longer growing season, should we start expecting spring allergies to arrive weeks sooner? Could a longer frost-free season lead to extended allergy seasons for people throughout the year? How will these types of climatic changes affect other allergenic organisms such as molds?

To those who suffer from seasonal allergies, these questions only bring more concerns. Rather than worry, though, perhaps we could start to plan ahead. We could work to reduce our carbon emissions to help future generations suffer less. We could create management plans to reduce the spread of allergenic plants. Or we could take a financial approach and start investing in Benadryl futures. Unfortunately, with the way carbon pollution regulations are going so far, the latter might be the most prudent approach.

This post originally appeared in Earth Island Journal

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Photo Credit: foshydog on Flickr

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12:04AM PST on Jan 30, 2015

Live long and prosper!

9:45PM PDT on Jun 11, 2014

Interesting. Thanks for sharing.

5:15AM PDT on Mar 27, 2014

Thank you.

6:41PM PDT on Mar 26, 2014

Are your allergies getting worse? You can blame people for that.
Well, yes, you most certainly can, and this article only picks up on half of it. Increases of temperature and carbon dioxide indeed do extend bloom season, and also increase the potency and the production of pollen.
However, our urban forests are anything but "natural." They are over-loaded with clonal male ("litter-free") trees and shrubs, and these all produce huge amounts of pollen. In some cities almost all the landscape plants are these clones. More than a dozen years ago Earth Island Journal published an article of mine on this phenomena, called "The Politics of Pollen."
Not long after that, I happened to be on the phone with Dr Robert C Stebbins, biology professor at UC Berkeley. He'd asked me what I did and I said I was an allergy researcher. "Are you the fellow who's been writing about dioecious and monoecious plants?" he asked me.
I was amazed he'd even heard of me, but it turned out he'd read that article in Earth Island Journal. "I took it to work and showed it to everyone in the department," he told me. "I told them," he explained, "that this is what happens when something is done on a huge scale, and not once is the ecology of it even considered."
Yes, climate change is making our allergies worse, but most of us live in the city, and we are planting our own allergies (female trees by the way, produce no pollen). As for ragweed, it ONLY blooms in the fall, and it has nothing to do with the alle

9:53AM PDT on Mar 25, 2014

Ragweed, the bain of my youth. Hours and hours were spent in a field earning horse rides by picking the stuff by hand so the horses wouldn't eat it.
Made our hands a lovely shade of nuclear green.
BUT maybe that is why I went from being 'allergic to nature' to being fine with no hayfever or anything
I am just now (still) VERY allergic to tree nuts and peanuts

7:01PM PDT on Mar 24, 2014

noted, truthfully said...thanks...

7:18AM PDT on Mar 24, 2014

thank you.

9:02PM PDT on Mar 23, 2014

Can't send another green star, Ron, but thanks for saying it well!

9:41AM PDT on Mar 23, 2014

I am not surprised to see a link between Co2, climate change and allergies.

9:19AM PDT on Mar 23, 2014

Thanks for sharing

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