How Climate Change is Altering Allergies in Seattle

If you think your allergy attacks are lasting longer, you’re probably right.
Elaine Porterfield  |   April 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

As If melting glaciers and monster rainstorms aren’t enough, it now appears likely that climate change can be blamed for the increasing misery of allergy sufferers in the Puget Sound region who sniffle over the blooming of alder and cedar trees every spring. While our trees make the Northwest beautiful, they promise to increasingly afflict hay fever sufferers in the coming decades by pumping out more pollen for longer periods, according to recent research on global warming from the University of Washington and elsewhere.

And it goes beyond pollen: Rising temperatures mean more ozone, which is tough on lungs, especially in older folks or those with breathing problems such as asthma. Furthermore, researchers say warmer temperatures will encourage the growth of molds and fungi, which also can trigger allergies.
 
“Climate change is going to result in new patterns of allergies,” says Dr. Garrison Ayars of Allergy & Asthma Associates in Bellevue. “Certainly, some changes have already started occurring. We have earlier blooming [of plants] and earlier pollinating. And, clearly, different species of plants are migrating north as the weather gets warmer, so the things people are allergic to will change as well.”

Still, for many, it’s all about the pollen. Scientists and physicians say that hotter temperatures may actually be making certain plants grow bigger and thus make more pollen—pollen on steroids, as it were. Significantly, asthma and allergy cases are more prevalent now than in the past, says pediatrician and researcher Dr. Catherine Karr, with the UW School of Medicine and School of Public Health.

“Carbon dioxide is one of the major things driving the change in climate, increasing and changing the way many weeds and plants grow and how long their pollen season is,” Karr says. “Common hay-fever-type triggers under [climate change] are greater. And over the last 20 years, we’ve seen allergies and asthma increase.”

Tree pollen is the most common trigger for spring allergies, and with spring arriving 10 to 14 days earlier than it did just 20 years ago in most parts of the country, it’s making people sneeze and wheeze longer, according to a report last year by the National Wildlife Federation. Fall allergies, primarily caused by ragweed (which, allergists say, doesn’t grow west of the Cascades), are also getting worse. Ragweed plants are becoming really big ragweeds, producing about twice as much pollen these days as compared to a century ago.

Allergist Dr. Leonard Altman of the Northwest Asthma & Allergy Center in Seattle has noticed evidence that jibes with the NWF report: Things are changing for his patients here. “I’d say the most substantial thing I’ve seen is that the tree pollen season here is starting earlier by a couple of weeks than, say, a decade ago,” he says.

It’s a big topic in medical circles for allergists and pulmonologists, he says, and is talked about increasingly at professional meetings. Dr. Jeffrey Demain, director of the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska in Anchorage, assistant professor at the UW Medical School and adjunct professor at the University of Alaska, discussed precisely that in a presentation to fellow allergists recently. “The fact that the planet is warming is real,” Demain says. He ticks off problems posed by climate change for air quality and for allergy sufferers: more particulates in the air from increasing forest and tundra fires; more airborne allergens of all stripes, such as mold spores; earlier and longer pollen seasons. Anecdotally, Alaskans believe they’re already experiencing this with birch pollen, he says.

So stock up on tissues, you allergy sufferers. And consider investing in some Claritin stock to deal with all that sinus pressure. Meanwhile, pressure on Congress to address climate change might be the best prescription for treating your sniffles.