Climate change ramps up allergy threats

| December 6, 2018

A rise in dangerous and even fatal asthma and other allergic attacks – as occurred in Melbourne’s deadly 2016 ‘thunderstorm asthma event’ – could be one of Australia’s biggest health challenges from climate change, warns the author of a major new review of international evidence.

The review in the latest issue of Public Health Research & Practice, published by the Sax Institute, looks at studies since 2000 relating to climate change, allergens and allergy.

It includes recent research from Europe and North America that finds higher temperatures and more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will significantly boost levels of allergens in the air such as grass pollen. At the same time, the pollen season is changing, starting earlier and going on for longer. Again, the result is substantially more pollen in the air.

However, the review’s author, Associate Professor Paul Beggs, from Macquarie University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, Sydney, found that almost all the research about climate change’s effects on allergies is from overseas, and Australian-focused research “is therefore urgently needed”.

Associate Professor Beggs also found that Australia’s systems for monitoring, reporting and forecasting atmospheric concentrations of allergens such as pollen were not fit for purpose.

The review notes that allergic illness is “already a very significant public health issue in Australia”. Asthma prevalence in Australia is among the highest in the world, with some estimates suggesting one child in five has wheeze symptoms and one in 13 has asthma.

In November 2016, Melbourne experienced “the world’s largest, most catastrophic epidemic thunderstorm asthma event” that caused thousands of emergency department presentations, hundreds of asthma-related hospital admissions and 10 deaths. The odds of such extreme weather events are greatly increased with climate change, the review finds.

Evidence shows that higher temperatures can also lead to increased production of fungal spores, another trigger for many susceptible people, as well as boosting indoor moisture and mould growth, which can cause allergic reactions.

“It could be argued that these impacts pose a serious climate change-human health risk to Australia and that they should therefore be among Australia’s climate change-human health priorities,” Associate Professor Beggs says.

But Australia’s research efforts in this area have been woefully inadequate, and much of the international research has been done in climates unlike our own, involving allergens that are not common here.

Our allergen monitoring is equally poor, Associate Professor Beggs says, with no national, state or territory body having responsibility for the monitoring, reporting and forecasting of environmental allergens.

What monitoring exists is sparse and sporadic. For example, in Melbourne, scene of the deadly thunderstorm asthma event, allergen monitoring only occurs for three months of the year. Elsewhere in Australia, monitoring remains precarious, with all sites either unfunded or subsisting on short-term funding.

This review of climate change and allergy is one of a number of papers dealing with health and climate change in a special themed issue of Public Health Research & Practice, overseen by co-Guest Editors Anthony Capon, the inaugural Professor of Planetary Health at the University of Sydney, and Dr Carlos Corvalan, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Sydney.

Other research in this issue includes a paper on extreme events in the context of climate change, authored by Dr Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick and Professor Andy Pitman from the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. Building resilience to events such as heatwaves and drought is the best safeguard against threats to our health resulting from climate change, they argue.

Another article on built environment interventions argues that landscapers, architects, urban planners and designers play a critical role in addressing the health impacts of climate change.

“Built environment interventions must move beyond simple ecological sustainability to encouraging ways of life that are healthy for both humans and the planet,” write Associate Professor Jason Prior of the University of Technology Sydney and colleagues.

Dr Colin Tukuitonga, who has served as Pacific Community Director-General since 2014, is interviewed by Public Health Research & Practice Editor-in-Chief Professor Don Nutbeam on the health risks from climate change to Pacific Island countries. Financial assistance from countries like Australia and New Zealand is critical to helping these countries build resilience, he says.

“These papers and current evidence point to the urgent need for stronger action on climate change to protect the health and wellbeing of current and future generations,” write Professor Capon and Dr Corvalan in the issue’s editorial.

For access to the full contents of the latest issue of Public Health Research & Practice, please contact the Sax Institute’s media manager.

Public Health Research & Practice is an open-access, peer-reviewed, Medline-listed quarterly online journal published by the Sax Institute. Click here to subscribe for free.

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