Thunderstorm asthma on the rise due to climate change - study

Source: Re: News

Climate change has changed the way we eat, the way we travel - it’s even splitting up albatross life partners.

Dark clouds over Auckland (file picture).

By Zoe Madden-Smith for Re: News

Now new research is saying it will meddle with allergies and asthma, too.

Until recently, thunderstorm asthma was thought to be a pretty rare phenomenon.

But now that stormy weather events are becoming more common, a New Zealand study has labelled thunderstorm asthma a growing threat to public health.

Thunderstorm asthma is the increase of asthma cases within hours of thunderstorms.

During a thunderstorm, airborne allergen particles, like pollen and fungal spores, are broken down into fine respirable particles that can be inhaled and trigger asthma symptoms.

The study published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in July says places like Waikato are particularly vulnerable to thunderstorm asthma because of the extensive pastoral farming and grass.

Its inland location means there is also more chance of summer thunderstorms which sync up with New Zealand’s pollen and fungal spore season.

Get ready for longer allergy seasons due to grass

Allergy specialist Rohan Ameratunga says climate change could also change the length and severity of New Zealand’s allergy seasons.

“Unfortunately, New Zealand is quite bad in terms of grass allergies because our grass season is already quite long here.”

As the climate changes and temperatures rise, the grass season may get longer which would make things worse for grass allergy sufferers because more allergens are hanging around for longer in the year, he says.

But on the flip side, Ameratunga says what may happen is the temperate grasses we have now could become less prevalent in warmer climates and you may get subtropical grasses instead.

“This means people who have temperate grass allergies, which is a common cause of hay fever here, could feel some relief,” he says.

A study released in 2022 shows the United States will face up to a 200% increase in pollen this century if the world continues producing carbon dioxide emissions at the rate it currently is.

This is because rising temperatures will extend the growing season of plants and grass, giving them more time to reproduce and emit pollen.

Carbon dioxide also fuels photosynthesis, so this may mean plants will grow larger and produce more pollen, too.

New Zealand has a dust mites problem

To make matters worse, dust mites in New Zealand, and Auckland particularly, are bad on an international scale because we are a temperate region - this means it never gets too hot or too cold there’s a lot of moisture in the air - and dust mites thrive in humid and damp environments.

Dust mites are microscopic creatures that feed off skin cells and grow well in humidity in bedding, blankets, and winter clothing that has been left in cupboards for a while.

They can be extremely difficult to eradicate, but reducing humidity indoors by opening windows regularly and using a dehumidifier can keep them under control and avoid triggering asthma symptoms.

Despite rising temperatures being catastrophic for the environment, Ameratunga says if New Zealand's climate becomes drier our mould and dust mite issues will improve.

“So it could be a mixed bag, some things could get better and other things will get worse,” he says.

Best place to live to avoid seasonal allergies?

“[In] places like the Middle East, there are no dust mites because it's too hot and the heat also means there's no grass there. So if you've got allergies, that's the best place to be,” Ameratunga says.

“Very cold places also don’t have as much of an issue with dust mites and grasses are less of an issue, too. Unfortunately, places like Auckland are the perfect humid climate for allergens to thrive.”

Morgan Pedlow suffers from asthma and hay fever and says he noticed his allergies weren’t as bad when he was living in the Netherlands.

“In New Zealand, I feel like I am sneezing all year round but when I was living in Europe my asthma and allergies weren’t nearly as crazy.”

But even though Morgan finds his constant sniffles and reliance on an inhaler annoying, he says he isn’t willing to move away from New Zealand to find relief.

“It’s not that bad yet. But it does make you think about how climate change is related to literally everything. It’s going to change even the smallest bits of life.”

First published on renews.co.nz Re: makes videos, articles and podcasts that cover the important issues that matter to young New Zealanders. You can see more stories on their website.