Allergy Season is Getting Longer, and Communities of Color Will Suffer the Most

Microscopic view of pollen from common plants      Image: Dartmouth College Electron Microscope

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

A new study published Monday has found that a second, sneezier plague is ramping up. Allergy seasons have increased in duration by an average of 20 days since 1990. Why? Rising temperatures and an abundance of atmospheric carbon are increasing the amount of pollen in the air, and researchers say the growing problem won’t stop anytime soon.

Why This Matters: It’s not just sniffling and sneezing, it’s a public health risk. Those with respiratory diseases and disorders like asthma will suffer most and the COVID-19 pandemic is leaving more people vulnerable. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported:

  • 24.8 million people in the U.S. suffer from asthma.
  • 19 million adults had hay fever in the last 12 months.
  • Seven million children had respiratory allergies in the last 12 months.

Communities of color could be more vulnerable to increased allergens in the air. Black adults were 42 percent more likely than white adults to suffer from asthma, and higher levels of air pollution and COVID cases in Black communities compound the risk of respiratory health issues.

Counting Pollen

Research has suggested that the earlier onset of pollen season correlates with higher hospitalization rates for asthma and student academic performance was even found to suffer during the peak of allergy season. As pollen count continues to accelerate, allergy season will only grow longer. “I have to be on allergy medication eight months of the year and still there are periods when I’m still miserable during peak pollen season,” said Dr. William Anderegg, an assistant professor of biology at the University of Utah who led the study.

“We’re really under-monitoring pollen as an airborne pollutant,” said Dr. Anderegg. Pollen is counted by collecting grains on a “rotarod.” The samples are then observed, counted, and reported in grains per cubic meter of air. To collect data for the study, researchers used measurements from 60 pollen counting stations across the U.S. and used satellite cameras to detect physical changes in the regions surrounding the stations to ensure that development or changes in vegetation didn’t bias the results.

Pollen seems simple enough to measure, but far fewer pollen counting stations exist than air quality monitors. In fact, there are no government pollen trackers, and all existing trackers are operated by private organizations. 19 states, including Massachusetts and Virginia, do not have a National Allergy Bureau certified pollen counter. Without an organized national, or even a state program, there is no uniform way of regularly monitoring changes in pollen count due to climate change.

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