Climate Change Will Make Allergy Season More Unbearable

In just 35 years, we can expect the number of people suffering hay fever from ragweed pollen could double, mostly due to climate change caused by human activities

Biker rides through a cloud of Cottonwood tree pollen. — (REUTERS)
Aug 29, 2016 at 5:35 PM ET

If the rising sea levels, dying species, and extreme weather patterns weren’t enough to convince you that climate change is not to be trifled with — prepare yourself for the worst. Because a new study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives reports that climate change is about to make seasonal allergies so much worse, for so many more runny-nosed, bleary-eyed Europeans.

Based on current climate models, the study suggests that the number of people suffering from hay fever, due to troublesome ragweed pollen, could double in just 35 years. “Pollen allergy is a major public health problem globally but it has not been known what sort of an impact climate change will have,” said coauthor Iain Lake of the University of East Anglia, in a press statement. “This is the first study to quantify what the consequences of climate change on pollen allergy may be.”

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The U.S. have invented the runny nose — ragweed, bane of allergy sufferers, is native to North America — but recent studies suggest that the troublesome pollen is rapidly invading Europe. That’s to be expected with or without climate change — ragweed is highly invasive and resistant to herbicides. But climate change brings warmer temperatures and higher carbon dioxide levels, which is just what ragweed needs to grow from a seasonal pest into a public health emergency. Under the right conditions, a single ragweed plant can produce one billion grains of pollen per year, and already cost the European Union upwards of $60 billion per year in treatment and sick days.

For this new study, Lake and his team created maps of ragweed pollen counts over the pollen season and combined them with data on where people live and levels of allergy in the population. Then, they figured in the latest climate models and determined the likely impact of climate change on ragweed plant distribution, pollen production, and seasonal allergies in Europe. They found that the number of ragweed sufferers is set to double — from 33 to 77 million people — by the year 2050.

“Our research shows that ragweed pollen allergy will become a common health problem across Europe, expanding into areas where it is currently uncommon,” Lake says. “The greatest proportional increases will happen in countries including Germany, Poland, and France.”

Lake also cautions that “higher ragweed pollen concentrations and a longer ragweed pollen season may also increase the severity of symptoms.” The team’s models suggest that France and Italy, for instance, will likely see ragweed pollen arrive at least one month earlier and depart a few months later than usual, once climate change kicks in. And that’s just the ragweed. Several other important allergens are also likely to be affected by climate change. “It is also important to add that climate change consequences will not be restricted to ragweed,” Lake says.

“A range of other pollen-producing species are likely to be affected.”