Stock Up On Tissues Because Climate Change Is Putting More Pollen In Kansas' Air

Sep 24, 2019

WICHITA, Kansas  Deanna Caudill hasn’t used an inhaler since she was a child. That all changed for the 25-year-old Wichita State graduate student this month when, after getting a back-to-school cold, she never seemed to recover.

“It’s like every morning I wake up and I cannot breathe,” she said. “It’s just a feeling I’ve never had in my whole life be this bad.”

Caudill suffers from an allergic reaction to ragweed pollen and the lingering effects of a cold — a combination that’s becoming increasingly common for Kansans in September.

While ragweed pollen is typically at its peak this month, increased average temperatures caused by climate change are upping the total amount of ragweed pollen in the air every year. That means for many people with allergies, every year is worse than the last.

Plus, the third week of September is typically known as Asthma Peak Week: More allergy attacks happen now than any other time of the year.

Caudill’s symptoms are so bad that she’s already ran out of the first inhaler her doctor prescribed to her.

“I’m hoping that they don’t tell me I need to do breathing treatments,” she said. “Because I’m really busy and I don’t have time for all of this.”

Off the charts

As busy as Caudill is, doctors at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, are likely even busier.

Doctors at the hospital monitor and forecast the pollen count every day. Usually people who are sensitive to ragweed begin getting itchy eyes, noses and throats when the count gets above 100 per cubic meter in the air.

“We’ve been getting counts in the 1,000 to 1,500 range which is off the chart — until we made the chart get taller,” said Jay Portnoy, an allergist and immunologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital.

It’s led to more people seeking medical attention, especially now. To prepare for the influx of patients, Portnoy’s  team makes sure to increase staffing levels. He also said he typically takes vacation in July or October so that he’s available during peak season.

Because increased amounts of ragweed pollen is a regularly occurring event, Portnoy said people should prepare themselves each year by seeing their doctor and making sure all of their medications are filled. He also encouraged people with worsening symptoms to go back to their doctors to see what other prescriptions might be available.

A pollen explosion

While it’s regular for ragweed pollen to spike in September, its peaks have been increasing in the past few years.

And research shows there’s a link to climate change.

Lewis Ziska, an environmental health professor at Columbia University, said there’s a correlation between increasing temperatures and higher pollen counts in the Northern Hemisphere. By analyzing temperature and pollen count data at 17 monitoring stations with histories greater than 20 years, Ziska found that as temperatures increased, so did pollen counts.

The longer growing season (between spring’s last freeze and fall’s first freeze) is also increasing how long plants are producing pollen, lengthening allergy season.

Topeka’s growing season has increased by more than 30 days since 1970, and Wichita and Kansas City, Missouri, have seen increases of 7.9 and 4.5 days, respectively.

There’s also a third, although less understood, factor at play. Early research by Ziska suggests that increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to more pollen production. It’s also creating more potent pollen — or stronger proteins that cause allergic reactions.

“It turns out carbon dioxide isn’t a political molecule,” Ziska said. “It can stimulate both good plants and bad plants.”

But it’s not all bad news for those suffering through puffy eyes and endless boxes of tissues. Ragweed season in Kansas usually ends near the beginning of October — just in time for increased levels of mold.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Deanna Caudill's name.

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.