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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Report: Climate Change Making Allergies Worse

While the flowers and grass of springtime are a welcome change to most after the long winter we've had, for those with seasonal allergies, the suffering continues. (AJ Delos Santos/Flickr)

While the flowers and grass of springtime are a welcome change to most after the long winter we’ve had, for those with seasonal allergies, the suffering continues — intensified by climate change. (AJ Delos Santos/Flickr)

For millions of Americans, the joy of spring and the return of grass, trees and flowers is overshadowed by one thing: allergies.

In much of the country, it’s been a brutally long, cold winter, which can make for a particularly bad allergy season. Most of the worst cities in the country for allergies are in the South.

And while this year’s cold, wet winter is affecting spring allergies this year, recent reports indicate that the warming climate is making pollen counts rise. That’s just one of the many environmental impacts detailed in the National Climate Assessment from earlier this week from the White House.

Here & Now’s Robin Young talks to Mike Tringale of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America about what to expect this season, and the connection between climate change and allergies.




It's HERE AND NOW. And it's that time of year for many of us, that dazed, slightly out-of-it feeling, and we are blaming it on allergies. It's been a particularly long, cold winter for much of the country, and we hear that's going to make for a worse allergy season still to come. Meanwhile, most of the worst cities in the country for allergies are in the South, and while the cold weather is affecting many this season, the warmer weather overall is making pollen counts rise.

That's one of the many environmental impacts detailed in the climate report released earlier this week from the White House. Mike Tringale is with the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Mike, what are some of the other trends you're seeing?

MIKE TRINGALE: Well, we're certainly seeing that with record snowfalls and record precipitation over the past year all over the country, we're really expecting to see some of the worst pollen season than ever. But it's only consistent and sort of an exclamation point in the long sentence of the past 20 years where we've seen pollen counts rising nationwide significantly, partly due to global climate change, partly due to increases in pollution, but overall we're seeing it's pollen, pollen everywhere, and this is the time of year.

YOUNG: So do you agree it's going to be a terrible season?

TRINGALE: It's definitely going to be a terrible pollen season. I mean, you know, let's talk about what plants need to grow. They need water, they need sunlight, and they need warmth, and they need CO2. And they're getting an abundance of all of those things because of global climate change, and really just because of the strong storms we've had over the past few seasons.

So, when you have plants with all those contributing factors, they grow faster, they grow bigger, and they pollinate more.

YOUNG: Well, but here in New England, for instance, we had this terrible cold winter, and that's meaning that trees are blooming about month behind schedule - not just here, but in other parts of the country - which means that those tree pollens, which are then going to be really going in a month, are going to collide with other pollens, grass pollens, for instance, that are just coming up. So we're going to have more pollens that way.

TRINGALE: That's right. Really, Mother Nature lets go of her tree pollens in the spring, and then she merges into the grass pollens in the summer, then ragweed in the fall. So there's really no respite. And, in fact, even in the winter there's a worry because where there's moisture, there's mold. So even mold spores can be a problem.

So it's important no matter what time of year it is that you know what you're allergic to. If you're not allergic to ragweed, then really, the spring is kind of a free-and-clear season for you. But if you're allergic to grass pollen, then you've got to concerned in the summer, and spring isn't the only thing you should worried about, despite what you hear in the news.

YOUNG: But again this year, our spring and our summer might be combined. But we mentioned the worst cities for allergies in the South. Which cities are they?


This year Louisville, Kentucky came in at number one again. I think it's its third time at the top. We know that weather blows from west to east, and pollen can travel up to 500 miles from its original plant. So Mother Nature carries this stuff long distances, and seems to dump it in the Tennessee Valley here in the South and here in the Mid-Atlantic area. So that might be a major reason why pollen counts are always so high.

YOUNG: So Kentucky, you can blame Texas, for - it's just blowing over to you. Well, just some of the other cities: Louisville, Memphis, second, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, three, Oklahoma City, four, Jackson, Mississippi, five. These are cities that are going to have a tough, tough allergy season.

TRINGALE: They are. You know, one thing we remind people is to talk to their doctor about how to prepare. You know, a lot of allergy therapies are really meant to be taken before the season begins, so that you don't have symptoms.

YOUNG: So you say prepare early. What else? Just give us another tip. Somebody said wash your hair, because it gets in your hair, and then it goes on your pillow.

TRINGALE: That's a very common, very effective step to take. I mean, pollens are sticky, and pollens can get trapped in your hair, on your clothing, on your pets. So washing your hair can be helpful, usually before you go to bed, so you're not sleeping with your enemy. And then the pollen, it can be washed down the drain.


YOUNG: That's a great way of looking at it. Mike Tringale of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, thanks so much.

TRINGALE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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