Climate change is driving our planet’s surge in hurricanes, wildfires, deluges and droughts. It is a new environment of extremes, where mold, pollen and pollution proliferate. And who feels the direct health effects? As Allergic Living magazine discovered in this article from the Summer 2014 edition – those with allergies and asthma.
Caroline Moassessi is used to looking out the windows of her home in Reno, Nevada and seeing the mountains. But in late August of 2013, as the third-largest wildfire in California’s history burned tens of thousands of acres in Yosemite National Park, all she could see was the color grey. Smoke, soot and ashes had blown in 150 miles, prompting air quality warnings, canceling outdoor sports and forcing kids to stay inside at their schools. Even people without a history of asthma were struggling to breathe; some paid visits to doctors for inhaler medication.
Moassessi knows of children with respiratory conditions whose physicians sent them out of town while the smoke was bad. “It was scary,” recalls Moassessi, whose own children, ages 10 and 15, both have asthma. “The first thing I would think when I woke up was, ‘How am I going to keep my children out of the hospital today?”’
Less than a year earlier (in October 2012), at the opposite end of the country, the destructive hurricane that came to be known as Superstorm Sandy barreled up the east coast, making landfall in New Jersey. When the storm surge hit New York City, it flooded streets and the subway system, and brought blackouts and fires. Ultimately Sandy took the lives of 72 Americans, and devastated seashore communities. Those who experienced this hurricane know that it had a widespread effect on health, too.
Harriet Spitzer-Picker, a Long Island resident, recalls that everything on the island was soaked in the weeks and months after the storm. Mold grew rampant – in people’s homes, but also in the grass and on trees. Her older son, now 10, developed a recurring cough. Testing showed he was highly allergic to mold. Spitzer-Picker, who works as an asthma educator, says many were similarly affected. “We had a nickname for it: the Sandy Cough.”
Extreme weather events, from coastal flooding, intense heat, record amounts of rainfall in some areas and historic droughts in others, are becoming increasingly common as the Earth’s average temperature rises. The World Meteorological Organization has linked some of 2013’s most extreme weather events – think back to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, as well as flooding in central Europe and record high temperatures in Australia, Asia and Africa, to human-induced climate change.
“There’s been a general disruption of nature,” says Kim Knowlton, a senior scientist in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health and environment program. In May 2014, the U.S. Global Change Research Program (GCRP) released a comprehensive report on the impacts of climate change. It bluntly states: “Over the last 50 years, much of the United States has seen an increase in prolonged periods of excessively high temperatures, more heavy downpours, and in some regions, more severe droughts.”
It’s not that hurricanes are new, or that the Earth has never seen forest fires or intense heat. But as the ocean and air temperatures are rising, the conditions that these events are taking place in are changing. Brenda Ekwurzel, a senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, likens it to playing on a grass tennis court rather than clay. “The players are the same, but when they’re hitting the balls on the grass court, they are going much faster.”
When it comes to environmental allergies and asthma – whether the offender is pollen, mold or air pollution – sufferers are at the mercy of what is in the air when they walk out their front doors. Climate change, and the extreme weather events that come with it, are altering that air. Simply put, the game is changing for people with allergies and asthma.
The effects are plentiful and far-reaching. Jody Shields, a mother of two young boys in High River, Alberta, isn’t typically too bothered by allergy symptoms in the spring. But in the spring of 2014, 11 months after heavy rain swamped her small town, overflowing the river and forcing all 13,000 residents out of their homes, things have been different. Her yard, normally grass, remains covered in mud. In fact, the entire town is muddy, and as it begins to dry up, dust is everywhere. Shields’ allergies kicked into high gear and her asthma flared.
To protect against future catastrophic floods, the city is building a berm close to her home. But with gravel trucks driving by every 15 minutes, “it is just so dirty,” she says, and that’s further aggravating her asthma.
Air quality right around the globe is showing the impact of changing weather patterns. Look at Paris. In the city where springtime is for lovers, the government was forced to restrict cars from entering the city in March 2014 after air pollution reached unsafe levels for five days in a row. Unseasonably warm temperatures and lack of rain trapped smog particles above the city.
Knowlton says with a changing climate and increasing unusual weather, what we’re experiencing is just the beginning. “People are going to have to contend with new sets of conditions and perhaps symptoms more than they’ve ever had to before,” says Knowlton. The question is, are we ready?
Next: Intense Rain, Wildfires and Asthma