How rising CO2 is affecting seasonal allergies (ragweed)


Lyndsie Yamrus, Senior Opinion Editor

I had to buy this book for my Climate Change class: Changing Planet, Changing Health, by Paul R. Epstein and Dan Ferber.

It’s a pretty good read so far if you’re interested in the effects brought about by CO2 increases and a warming Earth, as everyone should be.

As an Environmental Science student, the general concept of climate change isn’t new to me, but reading this book has introduced me to a plethora of new insights- one of which, to my surprise, may be directly affecting me as I type.

Seasonal allergies.

I’ve had seasonal allergies for a couple years now. In New Jersey, my home state, they were relatively mild.

When mine started, the only issue I had were itchy eyes. So I got a prescription for Patenol eye drops and that was that. A year or two later, I was picking up Zyrtec because my nose was a little stuffy. Still, nothing major.

Then I went away to college in Pennsylvania, and it was all downhill from there.

Now, every fall and late spring, conveniently right around finals week and other significant obligations, I find myself coughing, sneezing, itching and unable to swallow well enough to go to sleep or even function without a buildup of allergy medicines in my system.

A subsection in Changing Planet, Changing Health covers increasing CO2 levels (irrelevant of climate change) and its effects on allergies and asthma, but also one allergen in particular: ragweed.

According to Epstein, approximately one in ten Americans suffers from ragweed allergies, and as cases increase, allergies now stand as the sixth leading cause of chronic illness in the United States.

Naturally, scientists began to think that maybe rising CO2 levels have something to do with it.

In the spring of 2000, student Susannah Foster at Harvard University studied ragweed growth for her senior thesis project. Foster planted ragweed seeds in pots and placed them in transparent growth chambers in a greenhouse.

Half of the plants were subjected to 350 parts per million (ppm) CO2 and the other half were subjected to double that amount at 700 ppm.

The result of the experiment was that doubling atmospheric CO2 caused the plants to grow 10 percent more and produce 61% more pollen. These findings are significant.

A year prior, scientist Lewis Ziska conducted a similar experiment, however, his was performed outside where it actually mattered, as these conditions would be realistic. Ziska and his team planted ragweed in three places- rural Maryland, suburban Baltimore and Baltimore’s urban Inner Harbor.

With all factors of the experiment equal, the urban Inner Harbor ragweed grew three to five times larger than the rural ragweed and produced ten times more pollen per plant.

These results are consistent with the fact that CO2 levels are significantly higher in urban locations due to fossil-fuel burning industries and vehicles.

So, me applying this data to real life is as follows:

My allergies would naturally be worse in Wilkes-Barre than they would be near the beach in New Jersey because of the difference in carbon dioxide levels. There are more vehicles and industries around here than there are where I live- a likely answer to why I now suffer when allergy season comes around.

Rising oceans and melting sea ice can be hard to see, but too many of us experience seasonal allergies.

It kind of tunes you in to the reality of what’s really going on. I know it did for me.