A report released Wednesday by the non-profit Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America revealed America’s “allergy capitals” for the past year. These were the hardest places to live for people with pollen allergies. The rankings were based on pollen counts and took into account the use of over-the-counter medications and the number of allergy doctors in the area.
The hardest place to live with allergies last year was Wichita, according to the report, followed by Dallas, Scranton, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma City and Tulsa to round out the Top 5 locations. Seven Top 20 cities were in Florida.
According to the report, some of the least difficult places to live with allergies last year were Buffalo, Seattle, Cleveland, Austin, Akron, Ohio and DC. While these places may have had relatively less pollen than other parts of the country, they also had good access to medicine and specialists, according to the report.
“We are seeing a lot more (pollen) in the South, which we expect because cities in the South have warmer winters. Plants grow and produce pollen for longer periods of time,” said Sanaz Eftekhari, the foundation’s vice president of research and author of the report. Some Northeastern cities, such as Scranton, rank high due to their lack of over-the-counter medication use and number of allergists.
This year’s results largely match regional trends seen over the past decade in the foundation’s pollen data, which is collected from various pollen sensors in the 100 most populous U.S. metropolitan areas. In data shared with The Washington Post, cities that have consistently ranked over the past decade as having the highest pollen rankings in the nation include: McAllen, Texas; Oklahoma City; Richmond; San Antonio; and this year’s champion, Wichita.
“Wichita and Pennsylvania are areas that have extremely high levels,said Landon Bunderson, pollen researcher and CEO of Pollen Sense, a company that provided pollen data for this year’s Allergy Cities report. While many ground stations capture pollen grains and require someone to count them by hand (as Bunderson had to do for his PhD research), these devices automatically count grains every hour.
Although not part of the report, Bunderson said, the company’s ground sensors also observed “megaevents” – an hour that experiences more than 15,000 pollen grains per cubic meter. He said these usually come in the form of a microburst at the start of a storm.
“They happen when we have a big ripening day and then we get an extreme wind event,” Bunderson said. As the pollen is released, our bodies can misidentify the harmless substance as dangerous and produce chemicals to fight it, causing sneezing, wheezing, watery eyes and congestion.
“For someone with asthma, these [megaevents] put their lives at risk,” he said.
Early start to a breathtaking 2023 season
This year’s allergy season is coming early and strong. Parts of the south and northeast experienced record heat in January and February. As a result, spring leaves appeared up to 20 days earlier in the eastern half of the country. The South experienced its first arrival of spring in four decades.
High pollen counts followed suit, according to Pollen Sense sensors. Atlanta experienced “extremely high” pollen counts in March, according to the Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Pollen Count Station. In DC, tree pollen counts hit an all-time high in February.
“Because we had a milder winter overall, we saw an earlier pollen bloom.“, said Anjeni Keswani, physician and director of the Allergy, Asthma and Sinus Center at George Washington University in Washington. Also.”
Keswani said she usually started seeing cases of pollen around March, but tree pollen levels spiked by January and February. People started coming around Valentine’s Day to treat their symptoms.
Even though the report says DC did well last year in terms of allergy risk, Keswani said she hasn’t noticed fewer patient visits. She said every spring pollen season in DC is important, although DC typically doesn’t have a heavy fall allergy season like elsewhere.
She added that busy cities, with lots of traffic exhaust particles mixing with pollen, can mean even more bad news for people.
“If we breathe in some sort of particulate air pollution along with the pollen, it can actually stimulate the immune system even more and create more symptoms,” Keswani said.
It is not particularly easy to predict pollen plumes, and therefore the intensity of allergies, from great distances – plumes are often dependent on weather and wind conditions, which can aggravate and spread pollen. At the moment, Pollen Sense can predict three days into the future.
Right now, Keswani said, she’s just trying to prevent and treat pollen allergies in vaccinated and medicated people.
“Pollen and pollen allergies are here to stay. With climate change they will potentially get worse,” she said.
How climate change is making allergy season worse
Allergy sufferers know how it goes: spring begins to call and the pollen begins to fall. The flowers keep rolling and our noses have become swollen.
But recently, people are experiencing a more intense allergy season – and climate change is the reason.
Climate change is affecting allergy season in multiple ways. Many trees and plants need a certain amount of sustained heat to initiate budding. Warmer winter temperatures allow them to build up the required amount of heat more quickly, causing them to start flowering earlier and for longer periods of time. Average winter temperatures, the fastest warming season, have risen more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the eastern United States since 1970.
Increased levels of carbon dioxide could also help stimulate photosynthesis, so trees and plants produce more pollen.
Ecologists, doctors and atmospheric scientists have already documented the changes. Across North America, the pollen season has lengthened by 20 days since 1990. Pollen concentrations have also increased by 21% over the past three decades. The data showed the biggest changes in the Midwest and Texas.
Climate models show that the pollen season could worsen by the end of the century with high greenhouse gas emissions. The northern United States will see more changes than the south due to greater temperature changes, but it also depends on the tree species in each region.
The northeast may see more pollen production as some trees may bloom more. As a result, several species of trees bloom at the same time. The Southeast will likely experience the greatest increase in pollen production due to the prolific pollen-producing oak and cypress species that are dominant in the region.
“On a larger scale, we really support all efforts to mitigate climate change because, in the long term, that’s what’s leading to this increased concentration of pollen in the air,” Eftekhari said.