“Itchy water eyes, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, wheezing, shortness of breath, scratchy throat, congestion…”
That is what Brooklynite Amy Grech, 49, experiences with the first plant buds of spring, and she said since she was 14 years old, her allergies have worsened in severity as well as lengthened in duration.
“My eyes will get really red. You would think that I was high,” said Grech, who spent the worst days of allergy season indoors with the windows shut. “Every day I'm doing this saline nose spray; the Zaditor [eye drops] first thing when I wake up; allergy pill right after breakfast; Nose spray throughout the day.”
For Grech and many other spring allergy sufferers, spring life won’t get any better, according to a new study that found a strong link between climate change and pollen production. In the warmer, wetter future with rising levels of carbon dioxide, these discharged microscopic grains from the male parts of flowers will not only significantly increase, but their production will be extended by weeks. The scientists behind the study predict allergy season will lengthen as a result, intensifying sensitivities to pollen and symptoms.
The study based its analysis on pollen levels collected from about 100 rooftop monitoring stations around the country via the National Allergy Bureau. This database looks at the 13 plants most likely to produce wind-carried pollen, a mixture of everything from tall birches and conifers down to flowering weeds, which account for 77% of the total pollen counts nationwide. (New Yorkers can look up readings from these stations in real-time. According to the most recent reading, March 17th, for the pollen station located at Fordham College at Lincoln Center, tree pollen is moderate.)
Patterns from this dataset were coupled with future climate model projections and historical data of regional precipitation and temperatures to develop a forecasting tool for predicting pollen emissions across the nation. According to study author Allison Steiner, it’s data people can use to plan ahead depending on the daily pollen concentrations.
Of the three climate factors the study analyzed, temperature was a big influence. Warmer weather can cause trees to begin flowering early, releasing pollen sooner. These temperatures can make plants more productive and increase the amount of pollen released into the air.
The Northeast has a lot of deciduous trees – pines, cypress, juniper and especially oak, all of which tend to make copious amounts of pollen when it’s warmer. The study’s findings revealed that most species are projected to increase pollen production by 20-40% when precipitation and temperature increases were factored together. Add a scenario of increased carbon dioxide emissions, and tree pollen in some cases tripled in quantity.
Trees tend to take turns as to when they release pollen, Steiner said. But with hotter weather, many trees are emitting at the same time, increasing the concentration of the overall count. The timing shifted 10 to 40 days earlier for trees and five to15 days longer of a season for grasses and ragweed.
“As we continue to burn fossil fuels and emit more CO2 [carbon dioxide], the concentrations are going up in the atmosphere,” said Steiner, an atmospheric sciences professor at University of Michigan. “And at this point, we think that that makes plants more productive, so they can start to produce more biomass.”
Other types of air pollution associated with carbon emissions can also worsen the problem, such as the particulate matter coming from car tailpipes.
“Things like diesel particles that are in the air – pollution is essentially these little bits of things,” said Lewis Ziska, an environmental health sciences professor at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study. “Pollen can adhere to that so that when you breathe in, you’re breathing in deeper and you’re taking in more pollen that has been collected on a diesel particle.”
The increasing pollen in the air also concerns allergist Stephen Canfield, a professor at Columbia University’s Irving Medical Center. He has been practicing for over 20 years, and recently he has noticed patients coming into his office with symptoms earlier than previous years as well as later, indicating to him that allergy season has gotten longer on both ends. One of the biggest issues for his patients is that allergies in the nose, airway or lungs can cause increased sensitivity to existing air pollution.
“We know that the greater that [pollen] exposure on an intermittent basis, the more likely the immune system is to respond to it,” said Canfield, who was not involved in the study. “In a city environment, you’ve got sulfur dioxide from cars and diesel exhaust particles blowing, having the allergies and the irritants certainly makes matters worse than just having the allergies alone.”
Weather app pollen predictors are not always accurate for individuals to use on a day-to-day basis.
But other experts told Gothamist that weather app pollen predictors are not always accurate for individuals to use on a day-to-day basis. Those apps are often dependent on historical averages of pollen counts, not real-time readings of what’s in the air. Current indicators show low pollen for the New York region because in the past, mid-March, on average, has had relatively low counts. And these apps do not factor in pollen loads blowing in from surrounding regions.
“More pollen can make people already allergic to the pollen have more severe symptoms,” said Yingxiao Zhang, a co-author of the Michigan study. “More intense pollen concentrations can also make more people become sensitive to pollen allergies, so it will impact more people.”
Allergies are the sixth leading cause of chronic sickness in America with more than 50 million sufferers, costing more than $18 billion annually, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. In the tristate area, three cities make the country’s top-10 list of challenging places for spring allergies: New Haven, Connecticut; Albany and Buffalo, New York.
Allergists agreed that this spring allergy season will most likely be a very, very miserable one. Ziska, who is allergic to nearly every tree pollen, said that his asthmatic reactions have felt like “an elephant sitting on my chest as I breathe.” He suggested wearing a mask to cut down on the amount inhaled.
But the future isn’t hopelessly filled with watery eyes, according to Zhang. It’s possible for humans to thwart this impending storm of pollen.
“If we can reduce the carbon dioxide [and] maintain a less energy intensive lifestyle, it’s very possible it won’t be that severe,” Zhang said. “If they don’t stop the high carbon dioxide emissions in the future, the carbon dioxide increase can drive a dramatic increase in pollen production — like a 200% increase.”