“Climate change makes people sick – from head to toe – but the heat waves are having an increasing impact on people with lung diseases”, said university professor Dr Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann at the dialogue conference of the Helmholtz Climate Initiative in Berlin on 17 November 2021. The environmental epidemiologist discussed climate change scenarios with other experts.
Data from the last several years show that deaths during the last heat waves among people with respiratory diseases are often disproportionately high. There are several reasons behind this finding.
More aggressive pollen at higher levels
Climate models predict a significantly longer pollen season over the next several years. At the same time, the pollen receives more CO2 from the air, making it a more aggressive allergy trigger. According to Traidl-Hoffmann, even in the best scenario – a low temperature rise – a massive increase in pollen is likely: “In the worst scenario, the pollen count will fall again, but because the birch trees will have died.”
Thunderstorm asthma on the rise
Along with the heat waves, thunderstorms will also increase. We already know that the incidence of asthma attacks increases when there is more pollen and more lighting. Researchers believe that thunderstorms cause the pollen to burst; the small parts can then penetrate deeply into the lungs, where they trigger asthma. People with asthma need to be informed about these thunderstorms at an early stage. Health apps for early detection could help with this in future.
Plan cities differently
Urban planning also has a role to play. As an example, Traidl-Hoffmann cited the trees at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin, where a number of birch trees are lined up next to each other, creating a whole row of allergy triggers during the pollen season. Traidl-Hoffmann called for alternative concepts in urban planning, which must take climate change into greater consideration in future.
Politicians must act
“Health problems caused by allergies will likely continue to increase, especially in cities”, says Professor Dr Torsten Zuberbier, Chairman of the Board of ECARF and head of allergy research at Charité in Berlin. “One of the main reasons for this is the unhealthy combination of high levels of fine dust and pollen in the city air.”
Traidl-Hoffmann C. Anpassung an Klimaextreme in Gesundheit und urbanen Räumen (Adaptation to climate extremes in health and urban areas). Lecture at the dialogue conference of the Helmholtz Climate Initiative on 17 November 2021 in Berlin, Germany. (In German)
Gilles-Stein S and Traidl-Hoffmann C. Führt der Klimawandel zu einer Zunahme von Pollenallergien in Deutschland? (Does climate change lead to an increase in pollen allergies in Germany?) Paed Allergol 2017, 1: 6-10 (In German)