A report released Wednesday by the nonprofit Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America revealed last year’s “allergy capitals” in the US. These were the most challenging 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, Pa., Oklahoma City and Tulsa to round out the Top 5 locations. Seven cities in the Top 20 were in Florida.
According to the report, Buffalo, Seattle, Cleveland, Austin, Akron, Ohio and DC were some of the least challenging places to live with allergies last year. While those locations had relatively less pollen than other parts of the country, they also had good access to medicines and specialists, according to the report.
“We see a lot more (pollen) in the south, which is what we expect because the southern cities have warmer winters. The plants grow and produce pollen for extended periods of time,” said Sanaz Eftekhari, the foundation’s vice president of research and author of the report. Some cities in the Northeast, such as Scranton, rank highly for their lack of use of over-the-counter medications and the number of allergists.
This year’s results are broadly consistent with regional trends seen over the past decade in the foundation’s pollen data, which is collected from several pollen sensors in the Top 100 Most Populous U.S. Metropolitan Areas. In data shared with The Washington Post, the cities that have consistently ranked as having the highest pollen rankings in the country over the past decade are: McAllen, Tex.; Oklahoma city; Richmond; San Antonio; and this year’s champion, Wichita.
“Wichita and Pennsylvania are some areas with extremely high levels,said Landon Bunderson, a pollen researcher and CEO of Pollen Sense, a company that provided pollen data for this year’s Allergy Cities report. While many ground stations collect pollen grains and require someone to count them by hand (as Bunderson had to do for his doctoral research), these devices automatically count the grains every hour.
While not part of the report, Bunderson said, the company’s ground sensors also observed “megaevents” — an hour in which more than 15,000 pollen grains per cubic meter occur. He said those usually occur as a microburst at the front of a storm.
“They happen when we have a big day to ripen and then we get an extreme wind event,” Bunderson said. When pollen is released, our bodies may mistakenly identify the harmless substance as dangerous and produce chemicals to fight it, leading to sneezing, wheezing, watery eyes and congestion.
“For someone who suffers from asthma, that [megaevents] are life-threatening,” he said.
Early start to a breathtaking 2023 season
This year’s allergy season is coming early and in full force. Parts of the south and northeast experienced record heat in January and February. As a result, spring leaves appeared up to 20 days early in the eastern half of the country. The South experienced its earliest arrival of spring in four decades.
High pollen counts followed, according to Pollen Sense sensors. Atlanta saw “extremely high” pollen counts in March, according to the Atlanta Allergy & Asthma pollen counting station. In DC, tree pollen counts reached an all-time high in February.
“Because we’ve had a milder winter overall, we’re seeing an earlier pollen bloom” said Anjeni Keswani, the physician and director of the Allergy, Asthma & Sinus Center at George Washington University in DC. also.”
Keswani said she usually starts seeing pollen cases around March, but tree pollen levels were already rising in January and February. People started coming in around Valentine’s Day to treat their symptoms.
While the report said DC did well in terms of allergy risk last year, Keswani said she didn’t notice any fewer patient visits. She said any spring pollen season in DC is important, though DC doesn’t typically have a strong fall allergy season like other places.
She added that busy cities, with lots of traffic exhaust fumes mixing with the pollen, could mean even more bad news for people.
“If we inhale some sort of airborne particulate matter at the same time as the pollen, it can stimulate the immune system even more and cause more symptoms,” Keswani said.
It’s not particularly easy to predict pollen plumes, and thus allergy intensity, far away — the plumes often depend on weather and wind conditions, which can aggravate and spread pollen. Currently, Pollen Sense can predict three days into the future.
Right now, Keswani said, she’s only trying to prevent and treat pollen allergies in humans with vaccines and medications.
“Pollen and pollen allergies are here to stay. With climate change, they may even get worse,” she said.
How climate change is exacerbating allergy season
Allergy sufferers know how this goes: Spring is calling and the pollen is starting to fall. The flowers keep rolling and our noses got swollen.
But recently, people are experiencing a more intense allergy season — and climate change is the reason.
Climate change affects allergy season in multiple ways. Many trees and plants require a certain amount of sustained heat to initiate bud formation. The warmer winter temperatures allow them to gather the necessary amount of heat more quickly, causing them to flower earlier and for a longer period of time. The average temperature of winter, the fastest warming season, has risen more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the eastern United States since 1970.
Increased levels of carbon dioxide can also help stimulate photosynthesis so that trees and plants produce more pollen.
Ecologists, doctors and atmospheric scientists have already documented changes. Across North America, the pollen season has been extended by 20 days since 1990. Pollen concentrations have also increased by 21 percent over the past three decades. 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 experience more changes than the south due to greater temperature changes, but it also depends on the tree species in each area.
The Northeast could experience more pollen production as some trees’ blooms may go up. As a result, several tree species bloom at the same time. The Southeast is likely to experience the greatest increase in pollen production due to prolific pollen-producing oak and cypress species, which are dominant in the region.
“On a larger scale, we really support all efforts to combat climate change, because that leads to this increased concentration of pollen in the air in the long run,” Eftekhari said.