Climate change, allergies and mucus: Achoo!

When I was in my mid-twenties, my brother had a crazy idea to ditch out on work for a month to walk the Camino de Santiago. For those not familiar, the Camino is an ancient path walked by Catholics and spiritual well-wishers (think Pablo Neruda and Shirley MacLaine) to the resting place of Saint James. It is a path for both spiritual reawakening and penance for a life perhaps too well-lived.

There are many walking paths to take, some starting as far away as China. We started near the French border and walked the 400+ miles from there. As you can imagine, I had a lot of ailments along the way: sunburnt ears, terrible bronchitis, infected blisters requiring me to down fire water before having them drained, random stabbing joint pain, but worst of all I learned that I am incredibly allergic to wheat pollen. You see, halfway through our trek we entered the dry flatlands of Castilla y Leon, where wheat is grown in incredible abundance for miles upon miles.

As a city girl I had never been exposed to agriculture in quite that abundance, and I suffered greatly. My eyes and nose became a waterfall of liquid. I ran through multiple rolls of toilet paper daily, until I turned to a bandana (lovingly dubbed the snot rag) which I left dangling from my nose through rest of the trip.

In the end, I was lucky. Living in the city, I can avoid wheat fields, but people with allergies to more common plants aren’t as fortunate, especially as the climate begins to change.

Take ragweed, the demise of many a young sinus. It turns out ragweed season has already increased over the last few decades due to a longer frost-free growing season and a later fall frost. Any gardener will tell you that frost kills plants, so a longer growing season without frost is generally good for the ragweed, bad for the Achoo! (1)

Unfortunately, less frost is only one of the problems. Ragweed grown in a higher carbon dioxide environment has a higher allergen content, more pollen and flowers earlier. When combining higher carbon dioxide levels with warmer temperatures, the pollen season becomes longer (2). This is great news for the plant who wants to “spread its seed” all over creation, but bad news for us allergic folks.

With the potential for allergies to get crazy over the next few years, what are we to do? Hide out inside? Go on a ragweed rampage? Move to an octopus’ garden in the shade?

I prefer a more practical approach. Merck, manufacturers of Claritin, is currently trading at $44 a share. I think I’ll get in now. I predict they’ll have some business coming their way. Achoo!

Further Reading:
(1) Recent warming by latitude associated with increased length of ragweed pollen season in central North America
(2) Anthropogenic Climate Change and Allergic Diseases

Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is the Policy & Programs Director at the National Center for Science Education. She has finally entered the year 2006 with a twitter account. You can follow all of her musings, weird animals videos and other such nonsense @BadassBio on Twitter.

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