ATCHOOO! ; Why Global Warming Is to Blame for Britain's Hayfever Epidemic

By Michael McCarthy Environment Editor | The Independent (London, England), May 13, 2006 | Go to article overview
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ATCHOOO! ; Why Global Warming Is to Blame for Britain's Hayfever Epidemic


Michael McCarthy Environment Editor, The Independent (London, England)


Global warming is to blame for the rising numbers of Britons suffering from hay fever, in the first direct impact of climate change on human health in this country.

The pollen from trees and grasses that produces allergic reactions in millions of people is steadily increasing with rising temperatures, according to the UK's leading pollen specialist.

Pollen seasons are lengthening, and the pollen itself is provoking a more powerful reaction - a situation already being reflected in rising GP consultation rates for hay fever, according to Professor Jean Emberlin, director of the National Pollen and Aerobiology Research Unit.

Hitherto, the direct effects of climate change on everyday life have seemed a long way off. But for the estimated 13 million Britons who annually suffer the misery of runny noses and watering eyes, they have already arrived, as pollen counts head steadily upwards - and more and more people are being affected.

"We are seriously concerned that rising pollen loads are starting to affect a substantial number of people who have never had hay fever before," said Muriel Simmonds, chief executive of Allergy UK (formerly the British Allergy Foundation). "That is coming over loud and clear."

The worsening situation has been dramatically illustrated this week by a giant pollen cloud, mainly from birch and pine trees, that has drifted to England across the North Sea from Denmark and Scandinavia, scattering its fine grains across the land.

Although some pollen is blown here from other countries every year, most goes unnoticed - but Professor Emberlin said this week's cloud, clearly visible on satellite photographs, was the worst in her experience. "It is unusual in its severity this year," she said. Asked it if was the shape of things to come, she said: "It maybe."

It follows record pollen counts in various parts of Europe this spring. Last Sunday, Denmark had its record count of 4,381 grains per cubic metre of air (pcm), while Vienna has experienced a record of 2,500pcm. At the University of Worcester, where Professor Emberlin's unit is located, a record count of over 1,000pcm was noted three weeks ago. "Bear in mind that over 80 is considered high," she said.

The likelihood of pollen counts rising because of global warming was pointed out in the last report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2001. Not only rising temperatures, but also the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide that is bringing them about could increase pollen production, the report said.

"There are several aspects to the problem," Professor Emberlin said.

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