Climate change is fueling surge in allergies, bug bites

I was lucky enough to vacation most of winter 2018 in warm weather locations, but I’ve spent a lot of that time blowing my nose. I’d assumed I’d contracted a cold on the plane, but now I’m convinced that in my seventh decade I’ve developed allergies — and I’m not alone.

About one in five Americans have sensitivity to garden allergens like pollen, and the numbers are growing. Climate change is accelerating the trend, and the farther north you live, the more likely you are to experience the effects. Not only is the allergy season in these areas getting longer, but plants are using greenhouse gases to produce more pollen. Gardeners are adding to the problem, too, through their plant selections.

According the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the number of growing days in northern states like Wisconsin has increased by 15 over the last two decades. In places like Alaska and the Canadian plains, it’s up by 24 days — close to a month longer for plants to bloom and grow. As a result, tree pollen bothers allergy sufferers earlier in spring and the hay fever season stretches farther into the autumn.

For many in Wisconsin, the allergy season kicks off with pollen from oaks, maples, birches and conifers. It’s hard to believe how much of the stuff the evergreens produce. Some years the brickwork on our house is caked with pollen from our Norway spruces.

Later in the summer, the pollen load comes from grasses — ornamentals as well as native meadow grasses. In late summer, ragweed is the culprit. Ragweed loves the increased carbon dioxide that modern man has dumped into the air. The EPA estimates ragweed now produces twice the amount of pollen in today’s polluted air than it did before the Industrial Revolution. And today’s ragweed pollen has more bio-markers on it, too, so the human immune system is more likely to overreact when exposed to it.

Alaska is U.S. ground zero in the allergy battle. Levels of birch pollen have soared in the extended growing season there. And while “high” pollen levels are considered 175 grains per cubic meter of air, Alaskan levels can reach 3,000 to 4,000 grains per cubic meter. This makes breathing difficult even for those without allergies.

Insect bites are on the rise as more wasps and yellowjackets survive the winter. Mosquito populations are exploding, too, and in 2006 Alaska recorded the first deaths from anaphylaxis due to insect bites.

Allergies may seem to be an individual issue, but they cost our economy tens of billions of dollars each year. That total includes medication costs, loss of productivity and about 20,000 emergency room visits each year.

Gardeners bear some responsibility for pollen problems as they embrace “easy care” gardens full of grasses, evergreens and non-fruiting male trees. These plants are supposed to make maintenance easy, but they pump out tons more pollen than many other traditional garden plants.

I’m fine as long as the antihistamines and tissues are at hand. But that’s not true for increasing numbers of Americans. Allergy and insect bites are going to imperil millions every year unless we find a way to reverse warming.



Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login