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Bad air quality makes for worse allergy seasons — just as climate change lengthens them

Getting more people out their cars and using public transportation, biking or walking is a goal of the Clean Transportation Plan. The annual number of vehicle miles driven in North Carolina was up 31% from 2003 to 2019, more than double the national average.
David Boraks
/
WFAE
Discriminatory city planning decisions made during the 20th century have put marginalized communities at an elevated risk for bad air quality.

Global carbon emissions have warmed the climate, lengthened allergy seasons and pushed pollen counts even higher — and that’s especially bad news for people in communities already burdened by poor air quality.

A warming climate has extended the growing season, when pollen flies, by a month in cities like Raleigh and Asheville since 1970.

Interestingly, Charlotte’s already-long allergy season has remained more consistent, even dipping down a bit. But the city is an outlier, according to a report by research group Climate Central: 83% of cities analyzed saw the number of days between the first and last freeze of the year, or their “freeze-free growing seasons,” lengthen by 19 days on average.

Graphic illustrating the relationship between CO2 and longer growing seasons.
Climate Central
Excess atmospheric carbon increases pollen production and lengthens growing seasons.

Not everyone is experiencing allergy season the same way, according to Emily Wolfe, the health manager at CleanAIRE NC.

“Maybe you live closer to manufacturing sites, Superfund sites, highways, [or] freeways,” said Wolfe. “If you have asthma or respiratory issues, it's just going to further compound those issues for you.”

About 6.5% of children in the United States suffer from asthma, although that figure is higher among Black and Puerto Rican communities, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Industrial and traffic-related pollution all contribute to poor air quality, which can lead to inflammation and contribute to respiratory issues. City planning initiatives enacted during Urban Renewal exposed Black communities across the U.S. to higher rates of traffic-related pollution, as road infrastructure fragmented or hemmed in historic Black neighborhoods.

Don't miss WFAE's 2024 Carolinas Climate Summit on April 18. We have an exciting lineup of speakers who will address the impact of climate change on the Carolinas; climate and environmental justice; solutions; individual action; and other key issues that are shaping our region.

Dr. Alec Gupta, an allergy specialist at Atrium Health, said pollen can exacerbate issues associated with chronic respiratory inflammation.

“If you add that poor air quality from other factors, like smoke and pollution,” said Gupta, “Now, you're getting more inflammation, which leads to more of the symptoms.”

Allergy season can be especially grueling for communities already burdened with air pollution. As the climate continues warming, they're likely to feel the effects more if steps aren't taken to reduce emissions and improve air quality.

“Of course monitoring the air doesn’t directly change the air quality,” Wolfe said. “But, indirectly, it gives you more information, which provides an opportunity to access education and understand what's happening in your area.”

Ultimately, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are only going to increase for the foreseeable future, but the way cities grow can change.

Wolfe said air quality monitoring in North Carolina can help doctors determine the environmental factors causing respiratory distress in patients. Increasing access to localized air quality data may also help communities identify and bring concerns to their local policymakers.

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Zachary Turner is a climate reporter and author of the WFAE Climate News newsletter. He freelanced for radio and digital print, reporting on environmental issues in North Carolina.