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Posted: April 18, 2010 12:00 a.m.

Here's to you health: Global warming making allergies worse

Anyone with allergies in Georgia can probably tell you they are worse than ever this year. After an unusually cold and snowy winter followed by an early and warm spring, pollen counts have soared in most of the U.S., especially in the Southeast. The Southeast is blessed with some of the most allergenic cities in the country and Atlanta is one of the very highest.

Daily weather reports currently list the daily pollen count, which is the number of pollen grains in a cubic meter of air. A pollen count of 120 is considered to be high. In the first week of April this year, Atlanta's pollen count hit 5,733, the second highest the city has ever recorded.

The problem is that in a warmer world allergies will get worse. A recent report from the National Wildlife Federation declared that global warming will likely increase pollen counts in the eastern part of the U.S. This can push the economic cost of allergies and asthma well above the current $32 billion price tag.

Global warming means that there is a higher concentration of carbon dioxide in the air, a condition that speeds plant growth. And warmer temperatures bring earlier springs. In comparison to 20 years ago, spring-like conditions are arriving an average of two weeks earlier.

If fossil-fuel emissions continue to rise unabated, pollen from ragweed is projected to increase up to 100 percent between now and year 2085. Ragweed pollen triggers most cases of hay fever. Not only that, but higher levels of carbon dioxide can make ragweed pollen more potent. Longer springs give ragweed more time to grow and give off pollen. By mid century ragweed pollen can rise from current levels of 385 parts per million to 600 p.p.m. and be 70 percent more allergenic.

Warmer climates tend to favor trees that give off pollen, like oaks and hickories, over pines, spruces and fir trees, which don't favor warmth. By year 2100, the once relatively cools states like Vermont and New York could have higher allergenic trees now living in the hotter Southeast as species migrate north to adjust to the heat.
People with asthma will suffer too as the planet warms.

There are about 10 million people with allergic asthma, a condition triggered by allergens. These folks are exceptionally reactive to air pollution which will worsen over time if fossil-fuel emissions are not curbed. One study discovered that climate change could increase the daily maximum concentration of ozone in the atmosphere from 3 parts per billion currently to 5 p.p.b. by year 2050 in the Midwest and Northeast. Bad heat waves, which are more common on a hotter planet, could double those figures. According to Paul Epstein of Harvard's Center for Global Health and the Environment, "We've already seen an overall doubling of asthma in the U.S. since 1980. We can't afford it to get worse."

One way to fight rising allergies, even in a warmer world, is to replace trees that emit high levels of pollen in densely populated areas, such as the Norway maples lining the streets of New York City, with mountain ash or golden rain, trees that emit less pollen. In the long run, however, if carbon emissions are not reduced, get ready for a more sniffly future.

Dr. C. Kirven Weekley is a clinical psychologist with offices in Covington and Norcross. He specializes in the evaluation and treatment of adults for depression, anxiety, relationship problems and medical issues. He can be reached at (770) 441-9244.

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