Allergists See Climate Change Affecting Their Patients

Mona Sarfaty, M.D., MPH and Marybeth Montoro, MPH

Consensus across numerous scientific studies shows that increased emissions of carbon dioxide contribute to the formation of ground level ozone and to increases in allergenic pollen production – both of which trigger asthma attacks and worsen allergic symptoms among the millions adults and children nationwide who are affected by asthma and/or seasonal allergic rhinitis. This mounting evidence demonstrates that the same changes that are contributing to changing the climate are affecting the health of people in the United States, especially those who have allergies or asthma.    

In collaboration with a research center at George Mason University, the national association of allergy doctors called the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) surveyed their 5615 members to investigate these topics. The vast majority of the 1184 respondents (91%) are medical doctors (the remaining holding a Ph.D., masters and/or other clinical degree) who provided their perceptions of and clinical experiences with the health impacts from climate change and indicated their opinions about what actions they have taken or believe should be taken to reduce the health risks. 

Not only did the majority of respondents (83%) indicate that climate change has relevance to direct patient care, but most (74%) also reported that climate change is already affecting their patients’ current health. 
 
When asked, “Do you think your patients are currently being affected by climate change, or might be affected in the next 10-20 years?”, the most common responses were that their patients are being affected by “air pollution-related increases in severity of chronic disease, such as asthma, COPD, pneumonia, cardiovascular disease,” and by “increased care for allergic sensitization and symptoms of exposure to plants or mold.”  Sixty to seventy percent or more were seeing these changes in their own patients now; an even larger percentage thought they would seem them in 10-20 years. 

Many respondents provided relevant anecdotes about patients who have experienced climate change related health impacts.  One doctor from Florida remarked that tree pollen season is starting three weeks earlier, and his patient’s seasonal allergy symptoms are more severe and last longer.  A doctor from Michigan has seen numerous patients with fall mold allergies whose symptoms now last well into December because the ground takes longer to freeze.  A Texas physician described a patient who previously had seasonal allergy symptoms to grass but now has year-round symptoms because of the overall warmer climate and extension of grass season.  A D.C. allergist described “a combination of high automobile pollution in Washington, D.C. metro area with heat, humidity and high pollen [that] produced not only nasal allergy and wheezing, but also very severe redness and itchy eye irritation in August.”

In responding to the health impacts from climate change, a majority of respondents (70%) indicated that physicians should have a leadership role in encouraging offices, clinics, and hospitals to be as environmentally sustainable as possible. Among the medical community, there is also a considerable amount of support for education on climate change and health in the form of continuing medical education, undergraduate medical education, and patient education materials. The majority of respondents agreed that the physicians should have a significant advocacy role, as well as a responsibility to bring the health effects of climate change to the attention of the public. These findings were consistent with the results of two prior physician surveys of other medical societies (the National Medical Association and the American Thoracic Society).  

Furthermore, many respondents are interested in playing a larger role on climate change and environmental sustainability, and they support leadership by physicians and their professional societies. As an extension of the survey, 85 physicians from AAAAI requested further involvement and opportunities in the areas of education, outreach and advocacy.

Although much work needs to be done in the area of climate and health, these results are encouraging. As more medical practitioners, trusted leaders in our society, take an active role in becoming more informed about environmental health and participate in sustainability efforts and reducing risk by educating their patients in prevention and protection strategies our collective prognosis becomes more hopeful. 

Visit George Mason's Center for Climate Change Communication (Mason4C) for more information.

Marybeth Montoro, MPH is the Health Education Researcher at the GMU Center for Climate Change Communication, and Mona Sarfaty, M.D., MPH is the Director, Program on Climate and Health at the GMU Center for Climate Change Communication.

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