Climate changes happening around the world and their associated impact on the air we breathe affects us all in some way, but not in the same way. Let's explore some of the specific ways different population groups are affected.
Asthma & Allergy Sufferers
To understand how climate change impacts pollen levels, it’s important to know that not all pollen is the same. Depending on a few factors — including plant type, location, and seasonal variation — pollen-emitting plants release pollen at different times of the year (and for different periods of time).
Trees typically emit pollen during the spring, grasses emit pollen more heavily during the summer, and ragweed emits pollen during fall. As such, the annual pollen emission period tends to begin after the last vernal freeze and ends during the first autumnal freeze.
On account of changes in climate worldwide, winter now begins later and ends earlier each year. in certain areas like the mountainous Western US. This change gives plants more time to grow, flower, and produce pollen — thus extending the time period during which high levels of pollen can be found in the air.
In the presence of heat and sunlight, chemical emissions from cars and factories react to form ozone, a harmful pollutant. As average temperatures rise, ozone levels accelerate. Climate change has also been linked to the elongation and worsening of droughts. Warmer temperatures and droughts combine to create the perfect conditions for wildfires. Wildfires emit a number of harmful pollutants and are associated with higher levels of Ozone that impact not only residents of the immediate area, but also those living in communities thousands of miles away.
Ozone is particularly dangerous to children since their lungs are still developing and they often spend more time outdoors than adults. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ozone can inflame the cells that line a child’s upper airways and lungs, harming the respiratory system “like a sunburn damages the skin.”
Long-term exposure has also been linked to asthma development in children and young adults, but even short-term exposure can be harmful, making it more difficult to breathe during outdoor activities.
Exposure to high pollen levels can yield negative effects on pregnant women. Recent research reveals that a pregnant person’s exposure to high pollen levels can increase the likelihood that their unborn child will develop early asthma.
What’s more, research suggests that, as levels of PM and ozone increase as a result of climate change, pregnant women exposed to these pollutants are nearly 13 percent more likely to have a miscarriage. Air pollution can also have an impact on low birth weights, congenital defects, premature births, and even autism.
Individuals who perform rigorous activity outdoors, such as athletes or manual laborers, are more susceptible to the dangers of climate change and air pollution. That’s because they tend to take more breaths per minute orally, inhaling more ambient air and thus bypassing the body’s built-in nasal filtration system.
When pollutants are inhaled more deeply during physical activity, they can diffuse into the bloodstream more rapidly. As a result, athletes are more prone to many of the health problems associated with air pollution, including damage to the lung airways, asthma, heart attack, and stroke.
The longer we live, the greater our exposure to air pollution. In general, older individuals thus have “dirtier” lungs compared to younger adults, making them more prone to respiratory problems.
Further compounding this issue, the body’s ability to filter out and dispose of air pollution weakens as we age, minimizing our ability to compensate for the effects of environmental hazards. As a result, air pollution is more likely to aggravate symptoms associated with heart disease and stroke, COPD, asthma, and diabetes within elderly populations.
Ozone and PM — two of the pollutants directly tied to climate change — are the most likely to affect the health of older individuals and can lead to premature death, heart attack, and chronic bronchitis.
Climate change poses a number of potential long-term public health threats, such as food shortages and vector-borne diseases, increased pollen levels and worsening air quality as a result of human activity and climate events around the world. For example, the death of 9 year old Ella Kissi-Debrah tragically led to the first person having 'air pollution' listed as the cause of death in the UK.
According to a new global report from The Lancet Planetary Health Journal, more than 70% of regions surveyed show significant increases in the length of their pollen seasons in conjunction with rising temperatures. Allergy sufferers are being exposed to extended pollen seasons than ever before. At the same time, climate change has been tied to large spikes in air pollutants like particulate matter (PM) and ground-level ozone — a key component of smog.