One-third of Americans — 109 million people — live in areas where they are exposed to both ozone smog pollution and ragweed pollen, according to a report released Wednesday by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group headquartered in New York City.
“This is bad news for allergy suffers and asthmatics because both ragweed pollen and high levels of ozone smog can trigger asthma attacks and worsen allergic symptoms in adults and children,” the report says. “Moreover, studies show that people exposed to both ragweed allergens and ozone are likely to become more ill than people exposed to just one of the two.”
Climate change is behind much of the recent increase in both ozone smog and ragweed pollen, the report adds. Warmer summertime temperatures can increase ozone levels, and warming temperatures also bring shorter winters, which means longer ragweed seasons.
Indeed, between 1995 and 2013, the ragweed pollen season in the Twin Cities metropolitan area lengthened by 21 days, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Minnesota not among ‘top 35’
Minnesota comes out relatively well in the NRDC report, however. Although much of the state is identified as ragweed territory, none of Minnesota’s cities appears among the report’s top 35 “sneeziest and wheeziest.” That list is reserved for cities that have the “double-whammy health risk” of high levels of ragweed and ozone pollution that exceeds the EPA’s health standard at least once a year.
The top five cities on the NRDC’s list are Richmond, Memphis, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Chattanooga. The cities on the list nearest to Minnesota are Chicago (listed 6th) and Milwaukee (14th).
The NRDC says it focused its report on cities because “in many industrialized countries like the United States, there is evidence that respiratory allergic disease are increasing in prevalence and severity, and some studies suggest that people in cities are more likely to experience allergy symptoms those living in rural areas.”
Likely to get worse
The report warns that as climate change continues to warm the Earth (and 2014 was the warmest year on record), millions more Americans are likely to develop allergies, asthma and other potentially severe respiratory ailments.
Allergies and asthma already afflict large numbers of Americans. About 17.6 million adults and 6.6 million children living in the United States were diagnosed with seasonal allergic rhinitis (hay fever) during the past 12 months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, some 18.7 million adults and 6.8 million children currently have asthma.
The prevalence of asthma among the U.S. population has been rising for more than a decade — a statistic that is particularly troubling. Asthma is a chronic and potentially life-threatening disease that causes air passages to become inflamed and constricted, making breathing difficult. About nine Americans die from asthma each day. In addition to this human toll, asthma costs the U.S. economy about $56 billion a year.
What you can do
The NRDC urges government officials to take steps to reduce the effects of climate change by strengthening carbon pollution standards and the health standard for ozone pollution. They also call for better pollen data collection and more ozone monitors.
The organization also offers advice to individuals who want to protect themselves and their families from pollen and ozone. That advice includes the following:
- Keep track of pollen counts in your area by following newspaper, radio, or television reports or checking online at www.aaaai.org/nab.
- On especially high pollen or ozone days during allergy season, put car and home air conditions on recirculate, and keep doors and windows closed.
- After working or playing outdoors, take a shower and wash your hair (or towel off with a damp cloth) to remove pollen, and change your clothes.
- Wash bedding frequently to remove pollen that settles on pillows and sheets, and vacuum regularly, preferably with a vacuum cleaner that contains a high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) filter.
- Try to save your most strenuous outdoor activities for days with relatively low ozone smog levels, or do them in the morning, when both ozone levels and pollen counts are lower. Check online resources like www.airnow.gov for forecasts of local ozone conditions.
- If you have allergies or asthma, see a medical professional. Take appropriate medication and precautions; consider wearing a filter mask before doing outdoor chores.
You can read the NRDC report, “Sneezing and Wheezing: How Climate Change Could Increase Ragweed Alergies, Air Pollution and Asthma,” in full at the organization’s website.