When Allergy Season Knows No Season: The Climate Change Connection

(BPT) - By Jad Daley, President and CEO of American Forests

Climate change is reshaping our world in unexpected ways, including the worsening of seasonal allergies. This was confirmed by a 2019 study showing a significant positive correlation between long-term temperature increase and an increase in both seasonal duration and pollen load. With fewer frost days leading to earlier springs and later falls, the longer, more intense allergy seasons are leaving millions of people searching for relief.

Many global programs are working to address climate change on a larger scale. However, there are steps we can take at the local level to help improve conditions in communities that may be disproportionally exposed to environmental hazards. For example, residents of urban areas are more likely to suffer from respiratory issues compounded by worsening seasonal allergies, especially in parts of our communities that have higher levels of air pollution. Pollution from car exhaust and heavy industry, specifically pollutants like Ozone, Nitrogen Dioxide, Sulfur Dioxide and particulate matter can exacerbate urban allergies.

Thankfully, there is one simple action we can take right now to help combat climate-fueled heat, air pollution and pollen exposure-plant more trees in our communities. This is especially important in lower income neighborhoods where trees are shown to be systemically lacking, according to American Forests' Tree Equity Score. This unprecedented analysis of every urban neighborhood in America shows average tree cover deficits of 26-38 percent for these communities, and average temperatures of 7-10 degrees Fahrenheit above citywide norms.

One example of an urban area in need of Tree Equity support is Southwest Detroit. With trucking routes and factories operating alongside neighborhoods and schools, respiratory-related hospitalizations are three times higher than the state average. According to Tree Equity Score, neighborhoods in this part of Detroit have a fraction of the tree cover common in other parts of the city and can be more than 18 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the citywide average, which further exacerbates air pollution and pollen exposure. With the support of the ZYRTEC® ReLEAF Project and American Forests, the Detroit Tree Equity Partnership is working toward a goal to plant 75,000 trees over a five-year period. Increased tree canopy cover can cool a city block by as much as 10 degrees Fahrenheit, while also helping to manage respiratory issues by absorbing and deflecting pollutants.

Additionally, planting more trees in urban areas, such as Southwest Detroit, can help mitigate seasonal allergies. While that might sound surprising, we are able to strategically select the tree species we plant to maximize environmental benefits such as shade coverage and reducing air pollution while minimizing pollen exposure. This is possible by using cutting-edge climate- and health-focused urban forestry techniques developed by American Forests in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. As part of our science-based approach, we use resources like the Ogren Plant Allergy Scale (OPALS™) to help inform a city's Preferred and Prohibited Planting Species List. For example, OPALS™ indicates that mulberry trees produce pollen that triggers seasonal allergies, while certain species of maple trees have less of an adverse effect on allergy sufferers.

The ZYRTEC® ReLEAF Project and American Forests are working to help people from all backgrounds have equitable access to resources that advance the well-being of both people and our planet. Climate change continues to impact our environment and allergy sufferers, and we can all do our part to help.

The path to cleaner air and a healthier future lies in our hands, and it starts with the strategic placement of the right trees in the right places for healthier and more climate-resilient cities.

Image courtesy Nick Hagen / American Forests

April 23, 2024