Fresh outdoor air is always cleaner and better unless you are allergic to the budding blooms which can lead to runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing or wheezing. This is especially true when the pollen season is in full swing.
Adding to your woes, now climate change is making these allergies worse. While the pollen season in India goes on till October, the change in climate has resulted in increased pollen levels. The intensity of the season increases as the extended growing season makes plants produce more pollen for a longer period. More pollen levels mean worsening air pollution, which in turn increases the risks of asthma and other allergic attacks.
A natural disaster
A major reason for the allergy seasons and worsening air quality is rising temperature caused by climate change. New research from the University of Michigan on pollen emissions published by climate and space professor Allison Steiner in the journal Nature Communications estimated that by the end of this century, pollen emissions could begin 40 days earlier in the spring than we saw between 1995 and 2014. So, the season could last an additional 19 days before high pollen counts subside, increasing the annual pollen emissions by 16–40%. In fact, with rising temperatures and increasing CO2 levels, the annual amount of pollen emitted each year could increase up to 200%.
Last year, satellite images by the US space agency NASA had intermittently shown signs of deadly dust clouds smothering a vast area of north India. Air-borne allergies were prevalent due to crop residue burning and toxic smoke from Haryana and Punjab resulted in increased levels of air pollution. This is common during the winter months every year, more so during Diwali due to bursting of firecrackers.
A study by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) estimates that crop residue burning releases 149.24 million tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2), over 9 million tonne of carbon monoxide (CO), 0.25 million tonne of oxides of sulphur (SOX), 1.28 million tonne of particulate matter, and 0.07 million tonne of black carbon.
As a result, the national capital has been ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world. According to the World Air Quality report by Swiss organisation IQAir this year, Delhi’s air pollution, ranked at number 4 globally, increased almost 15% over the previous year. However, the world’s most polluted place is Rajasthan’s Bhiwadi, followed by Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad. As many as 15 most polluted cities are in the country and mostly around the national capital.
Experts feel seasonal allergies occur at specific times of the year, typically when trees and grasses release small pollen particles into the air to nourish other plants. Climate change can affect the quality and amount of airborne allergenic pollen while pollutants increase their sensitivity, resulting in health impacts, especially in vulnerable individuals.
“While an allergy is an exaggerated response to certain substances that normal people don’t react to, conventional medicine includes anti-allergic or antihistamines for the treatment of allergies. The symptoms return as soon as the effectiveness of the conventional medicine becomes less. Gradually, the frequency of attacks may go higher as well as its intensity of the symptoms and may require increase in the dosage and frequency of conventional medicine. Long-term use of conventional medicine could cause side-effects like dry mouth, drowsiness, restlessness, blurred vision, or a state of confusion,” says Mukesh Batra, founder and chairman, Dr Batra’s Group of companies, a chain of homeopathic clinics that offer homeopathy treatments related to hair loss, skin diseases and respiratory issues, among others.
Certain homoeopathic medicines, as suggested by Dr Batra, are safe and effective to not only treat seasonal symptoms but also help to completely eliminate them with long-term treatment. For instance, Bryonia is prescribed when the discharge is thin watery and Aconitum Napellus is prescribed when the discharge is transparent.
Similarly, Dr Jayalakshmi TK, consultant, pulmonology, Apollo Hospitals, Navi Mumbai, says how a city like Bengaluru with good tree coverage could experience more severe seasonal allergies as compared to others. “Allergies occur because the body is producing histamine and other chemicals in response to the allergen or pollen. A good treatment is to avoid pollen exposure, using antihistamine like cetirizine or use anti-inflammatory medications, usually in the form of inhalers. The allergic reaction can also cause the breathing tubes, the bronchi and bronchioles to constrict; hence, bronchodilator medications are also used as inhalers, syrups or tablets,” she says.
Besides asthmatic people, anyone with a history of allergy or sensitivity to particular pollens can experience symptoms. “It is associated with a particular season when one type of pollen is more prominent. Those who have an allergic tendency or asthma tend to have more symptoms when there is weather change or rainy weather. For any allergic disorder, the only possible treatment is prevention,” says Dr Ravi Shekhar Jha, director and unit head, pulmonology, Fortis Escorts Hospital, Faridabad.
Natural historian and author Sir David Attenborough once said, “To restore stability to our planet, we must restore its biodiversity, the very thing we have removed. It is the only way out of this crisis that we ourselves have created. We must rewild the world.”
So, rewilding the world can help reduce human-animal conflicts and mitigate wildlife crimes. Studies have also shown that trees properly placed around buildings can cut energy demands up to 50% or more.
While atmospheric experts claim that climate change will have a considerable impact on the allergy season, the amount of pollen produced by a plant is determined by its growth pattern. Plant growth will be boosted by rising global temperatures, which will have an impact on pollen output. In addition to rising temperatures, an increase in carbon dioxide emissions will also lead to an increase in pollen. The growing season will be extended as the temperature rises, giving plants more time to develop pollen and reproduce. Apart from that, carbon dioxide promotes photosynthesis, causing plants to grow and generate more pollen. This will exacerbate allergies and make it more difficult to find effective treatments.
“It’s critical to not disrupt plant growth patterns and allow them to grow organically to avoid aggravating pollen allergies. Using renewable energy, investing in energy-efficient appliances, decreasing pollution, eating less meat, and lowering carbon footprint can help to avoid an increase in global temperatures, which has been attributed to a longer growth period and more pollen production. We can cut CO2 emissions by planting more trees and supporting afforestation efforts. Developing more environmentally beneficial transportation habits by riding bicycles, carpooling, or purchasing an environmentally-friendly automobile is another way. Climate change will exacerbate existing health issues or create new ones. The sooner we see the value of living a sustainable lifestyle, the sooner we will be able to protect ourselves from the perils of global warming,” says Bikrant Tiwary, CEO, Grow-Trees.com, one of the world’s largest non-governmental tree-planting groups. The NGO planted over 870,000 trees to expand and protect tiger habitats across India—over 235,000 trees across the buffer zone of Pench Tiger Reserve in Ramtek, Maharashtra, and more than 640,000 trees alongside the Kanha-Pench corridor in Madhya Pradesh, and so on.
While the planet’s future must be protected owing to the ongoing pollution catastrophe, according to a recent survey, the global population is breathing air that surpasses WHO limits for air quality, which is a concerning sign. “We come across statistics and data about the poor state of many cities regularly and have filterless solutions for controlling air pollution because of advancements in technology, and the demand for such solutions is greater than ever. Filterless retrofits for heavy vehicles and diesel generators can aid in the control and reduction of exhaust emissions. Additional steps such as limiting fossil fuel use, reducing forest fires, driving a green car, and reducing stubble burning, are vital for the health of people and the earth. Because it can impair one’s health and lungs, air pollution is frequently referred to as the ‘silent killer.’ It is related to the start of asthma and other respiratory disorders,” feels Irfan Pathan, co-founder & CEO, Pi Green Innovations, a cleantech company.
Major sources of air pollution from particulate matter include the inefficient use of energy by households, industry, the agriculture and transport sectors, and coal-fired power plants. In some regions, sand and desert dust, waste burning, and deforestation are additional sources of air pollution. Air quality can also be influenced by natural elements such as geographic, meteorological, and seasonal factors.
Contrary to this, Pamela Gale-Malhotra, Trustee, SAI (Save Animals Initiative), a private sanctuary located in Kodagu, Karnataka, believes that trees do not cause allergies and are caused in most cases due to weakened immune systems. “The polluted world today, with the UN and WHO stating that over 90% of Earth’s population breathe polluted air, is it any wonder that people are exhibiting more ‘allergic reactions’ to the air we are breathing?” she asks.
Malhotra finds most allergies that people attribute to pollen are really far more triggered by pollutants in the air, whether chemical, dust (caused by deforestation/lack of tree or plant cover), etc. “Building up one’s immune system is key to all illnesses including allergies, and the best place proven time and again to build up one’s immune system is by spending time in nature,” she adds.
— Smart urban planning or attention to allergenic plants can limit exposure to allergens
— Shift from burning fossil fuels to solar energy sources can reduce air pollution
— Well-designed urban areas can reduce the urban heat island effect that accelerates pollen production and increase air pollution levels
— White paints on roof and exterior walls for high heat reflectivity, high-performance glass on windows and balcony, use of green space—parks, trees, and green roofs—can reduce the urban heat island effect
— Allergies should never let you stay indoors. So, get an allergy test to know what plant triggers your allergies. This can help you decide a good time to be outdoors
— Know your air pollutants and allergens and reduce the exposure
— A mask helps in filtering the pollen and minimises exposure
— Take a shower once you are back home to wash away any pollen trapped in hair or clothes
— Opt for plants in your garden that don’t produce airborne pollen