The onset of spring in Mussoorie this year was accompanied by a particularly prolonged and severe pollen season. Thin blankets of pollen dust tinted the entire town a yellowish-green, raising concerns not only about its repercussions on allergies, but its reflection of climate change as well.
This seasonal anomaly appears to be a part of a worldwide trend, whereby countries across the world like the United States and the United Kingdom are experiencing alarmingly high levels of airborne pollen.
Pollen counts and allergies
Many students and staff at the school report worsened pollen allergies. For instance, Kyumin Kyung, Class of 2020, said, “I’ve lived in Mussoorie for six years, and this year has been the worst for my allergies. Nowadays, I cannot even open my eyes in the morning because they’re so swollen and painful.” Kyung has had to take particularly strong doses of anti-allergic medication to cope with the tough pollen season this year, resulting in side-effects ranging from dizziness to irritability.
Similarly, Mr. Steve Luukkonen, head of physical education, said that out of his ten years at the school, his pollen allergy this year has been the worst. He said, “Typically, the pollen season at Mussoorie lasts a month at most, but this year, it lasted almost two months.”
However, according to Mr. Tobias Tillemans, environmental science teacher, worsened allergies are not necessarily the result of increased pollen levels. He explained that even if pollen levels remain stagnant, people have become more likely to develop allergies due to huge shifts in lifestyle. Because people are no longer spending time outside, they are no longer exposed to normal levels of pathogens — which their bodies are “naturally programmed to handle,” thereby making their immune systems “really touchy and more susceptible to autoimmune diseases and allergies.”
This is especially reflected in research conducted by the University of Nottingham which infers that developed countries tend to have higher allergy rates than developing countries since the former are exposed to not only fewer types but also fewer amounts of bacteria on a daily basis.
Another lifestyle factor exacerbating allergies are the nearly-doubled rates of cesarean births globally since 2000. According to research published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, children born by cesarean section are twice as likely to develop allergic conditions than children born vaginally due to the lack of exposure to microbes in the birth canal, which are necessary to stimulate immune responses early on. Moreover, heightened antibiotic consumption across the world has also been found to increase the risk of allergic conditions in infants, according to Claire McCarthy, Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
Pollen counts and the environment
Additionally, it is important to note that prolonged and stronger pollen seasons suggest serious implications which extend far beyond just human health: many believe that such deviation in pollen seasons is a direct reflection of climate change. For instance, research in the Lancet Planetary Health journal suggests that the “extended seasonal duration and increased pollen load” can be directly attributed to increased global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels. The findings of this study are corroborated by publications by the National Center for Biotechnology Information and the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, which have established strong associations between carbon dioxide levels and pollen production of multiple species of plants, including ragweed and grass.
Carbon dioxide levels vs. ragweed pollen production
Carbon dioxide levels vs. grass pollen production
In response to the studies, Mr. Tillemans pointed out that the causes of increased pollen levels are too complex to be reduced to just carbon dioxide levels. According to him, one of the many other contributing causes of increased pollen levels in Mussoorie this year was the “exceptionally wet spring,” wherein the town received twice as much precipitation as normal levels. The excess water spawned higher reproduction rates in plants, subsequently resulting in more pollen. He suggested that another possible indirect cause could be the debilitating insect populations, whereby the biomass of insects has catered by more than 50 percent globally just in the past few decades. Since half the insects that collect pollen have perished, more pollen is naturally left airborne.
Taking into account these clusters of interrelated factors, Mr. Tillemans concluded that the human role in altering the environment was too significant to be dismissed. He said, “Between deforestation, climate change, and loss of biodiversity, it is more than likely that humans are responsible for this change in pollen levels. Ecosystems are already so complex, and we’re changing them so much.
“We’re creating a lot of uncertainty, and humans don’t do too well with uncertainty. I wish we had the kind of certainty the generations before us did.”
Aarti Malhotra is the managing editor of The Woodstocker
Featured image by Dhrubhagat Singh
Edited by Dhrubhagat Singh