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Ragweed and ozone –What’s the impact of this combination on Atlanta air quality and your health?

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By David Martin, RN, President and CEO, VeinInnovations

If runny eyes, a drippy and itchy nose, and the likelihood of coming down with a related respiratory infection are a concern to you as we roll into fall, a new report, “Sneezing and Wheezing: How Climate Change Could Increase Ragweed Allergies, Air Pollution and Asthma,” is important to note, as Atlanta is among the top 10 cities in the U.S. to have a new type of air pollution concern. It’s also good to know some measures that may to help minimize the impact.

This report is one of the first to show the nexus of high ozone smog and how it exacerbates respiratory allergies a couple of different ways. First, and this we knew: high ozone smog is an irritant in and of itself.  Second, and this is the newer information: high ozone smog, as it increases temperatures, is making some areas of the country ripe for explosions of allergens. Increased allergens will make many millions more Americans especially vulnerable to the likelihood of developing severe respiratory allergies and asthma.

Granted, the report is put out by the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental action group. But their track record (and board of directors, which includes Robert Redford, Leonardo DiCaprio, James Taylor, and leaders in education, industry, and law) points to credible information and reliable spokespeople, among them, Dr. Samantha Ahdoot of Alexandria, VA, who said, in response to the study, “As a pediatrician, I care for the group most vulnerable to the health consequences of climate change-our children. Children today are already experiencing worsening respiratory and allergic disease due to impacts on air quality and plant pollen production. These impacts are expected to increase as carbon dioxide concentrations and global temperature continue to rise.”

While there are some who counter the fact that that climate change pushes temperatures upward, my guess is that most reading this column would agree that that Global Warming is a reality.

Whether you agree or not, science shows warmer temperatures make conditions ideal for the formation of ozone pollution, and that ozone exposure irritates the lungs, which can lead to inflammation, problems with lung function, and increased asthma attacks.

Fulton County gets a grade of F for ozone, according to the American Lung Association.  

Ozone is formed when smoke from tailpipes, smokestacks, and fossil fuels like gasoline, oil, or coal are burned and come into contact with sunlight.  The gasses react and form ozone smog, which causes a damaging chemical reaction with lung tissue. Way above the earth, the ozone layer is a help, as it offers protection from ultraviolet radiation from the sun. At ground level, however, ozone is serious bad news.

For us, the increased warmth and ozone production mean ragweed plants will be putting out more pollen right about now and throughout the fall. And other pollen producers such as birch, oak, and pine trees are likely to produce pollen earlier in spring, and for a longer time.

That means inflammation and irritation of the nose, sinuses, throat, eyes, and ears, as well as sneezing, runny nose, and itchy eyes, are commonplace for the estimated

50 million Americans with some type of nasal allergy. It also means that for the more than 26 million Americans with asthma, fall will be a bumpy ride.

According to the NRDC’s report identifying cities now faced with both ragweed pollen and ozone pollution, and the associated threats to respiratory health, here are the top 20 cities.

  1. Richmond, VA
  2. Memphis, TN
  3. Oklahoma City, OK
  4. Philadelphia, PA
  5. Chattanooga, TN
  6. Chicago, IL
  7. Detroit, MI
  8. New Haven, CT
  9. Allentown, PA
  10. Atlanta, GA
  11. Pittsburgh, PA
  12. Louisville, KY
  13. Springfield, MA
  14. Milwaukee, WI
  15. Dayton, OH

What’s an outdoorsy Atlantan to do to protect himself or herself from the dual ravages of ozone and ragweed? On fall days with high pollen counts or high ozone levels, especially if you or family members have allergies or asthma, the NDRC recommends that you:

  1. Keep track of pollen counts in your area by following newspaper, radio, or television reports or checking online at www.aaaai.org/nab
  2. On especially high pollen or ozone days during allergy season, put car and home air conditioners on recirculate, and keep doors and windows closed.
  3. After working or playing outdoors, take a shower and wash your hair (or towel off with a damp cloth) to remove pollen, and change your clothes.
  4. Try to save your most strenuous outdoor activities for days with relatively low ozone smog levels, or do them in the morning, when ozone levels are lower. Check online resources like www.airnow.gov for forecasts of local ozone conditions.
  5. If you have allergies or asthma, see a medical professional. Take appropriate medication and precautions; consider wearing a filter mask before doing outdoor chores.

Longer-term solutions for Atlanta? We could look into reducing the number of cars on the road via more use of carpooling and public transportation.  The health benefits of that action may extend beyond reducing ozone levels, as they could also include a reduction in accidents and outbreaks of road rage, and an increase in on-time appointments for allergy shots.

The “Sneezing and Wheezing” report http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/sneezing/contents.asp is available by clicking here: http://www.nrdc.org/globalwarming/sneezing/contents.asp

A map showing the intersection of ragweed and ozone hot spots is available by clicking here:

http://docs.nrdc.org/globalwarming/files/glo_15051301a.pdf

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