What does environmentalism have to do with allergies and asthma? Probably more than you realize.
Wikipedia tells us that environmentalism is "a concern for the preservation, restoration, or improvement of the natural environment, such as the conservation of natural resources, prevention of pollution, and certain land use actions."
Environmentalism has its roots in the writings of naturalists like Henry David Thoreau, who published Walden in 1854. The movement really picked up steam in the 1960s after the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which detailed how insecticides and pesticides enter the environment and affect every organism along the food chain (including humans). Carlson's book focused on the pesticide DDT and eventually led to a ban on the dangerous chemical.
The environmentalism movement was not limited to the United States. In India in the 1970s, Gandhi supported the peaceful resistance of deforestation with the slogan "Ecology is Permanent Economy."
In 1979, former NASA scientist James Lovelock published Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, which put forth the Gaia Hypothesis: that the entire planet Earth functions like a single living organism.
Today, thanks in part to the Internet, the environmentalism movement is stronger than ever. And if you have allergies or asthma, that's a very good thing, indeed.
Air Pollution, Allergies & Asthma
achoo! ALLERGY specializes in products for the environmental control of allergens inside the home - allergy relief bedding, air purifiers, dehumidifiers, HEPA vacuum cleaners, and so on. These products help allergy sufferers eliminate the indoor allergens that make them sick. However, aside from masks, we cannot offer any products to help you deal with harmful outdoor air pollution - and it turns out that outdoor air pollution makes your allergies even worse.
MSNBC reports that emissions from
petroleum and chemical plants increase ozone (smog) levels and worsen allergies and asthma, especially in large cities. In fact, allergic disease is much more prevalent in developed countries like the U.S. than in third world countries, which suggests that modern, urban life promotes allergy. In a 2006 article, National Geographic writer Judith Neman points out, "There are remote areas of South America and Africa, for example, where allergies are virtually nonexistent."
Dr. David Peden, director of the University of North Carolina Center for Environmental Medicine, Asthma, and Lung Biology, says that several studies show that ozone can exacerbate one's allergies. Peden found that higher levels of ozone increase sensitivity to dust mites as well as the chronic inflammation associated with asthma. Other pollutants like tobacco smoke also increase sensitivity to allergens.
Other research shows that the particulate exhaust from diesel fuel increases a person's sensitivity to allergens like dust mites and pollen. So if you have allergies or asthma, it's a good idea to check the ozone level as well as the pollen count before planning outdoor activities. Try to avoid exposure to high ozone levels when possible. If you exercise outdoors, try to do it in the mornings and away from major freeways to avoid the heaviest air pollution.
To learn more about the effect of air pollution on your health, see Dr. W. Gerald Teague, M.D. on Air Pollution & Your Health.
Global Warming, Allergies & Asthma
After Al Gore lost the presidential election in 2000, he decided to invest his time, money, and energy into another kind of campaign that he felt was more important: to educate the people of the planet about global warming. Gore was one of the first politicians to understand the science of climate change and call for a reduction in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In 2006, Gore starred in the Academy Award winning film about
global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, and in 2007, Gore helped to organize the Live Earth benefit concerts at eleven locations around the world.
For a presidential contender like Al Gore to drop out of politics and focus on raising awareness about this one issue, global warming must be a very serious matter.
In the past, there were political debates about whether or not global warming was really happening, but today the scientific consensus is that human activity is indeed causing global warming through elevated levels of greenhouse gases. The NOVA documentary Dimming the Sun even suggests that atmospheric pollution has been masking the full effect of
global warming - and that we may face a climate crisis much sooner than previously thought.
So what does global warming mean for the average allergy sufferer?
Higher temperatures and elevated levels of carbon dioxide increase the rate of photosynthesis for plants, which leads to more plants and more pollen. Plants are also flowering earlier each year, thus extending the allergy season. Christine Rogers, a research associate at Harvard University, says, "Plants are flowering significantly earlier over time and advancing the season by approximately 0.8 days per year."
According to the Agriculture Department, ragweed already produces nearly twice as much pollen as it did 100 years ago! Studies also predict that global warming will bring more intense rainstorms and more mold.
Anyone who has been living in Atlanta for the past couple of weeks knows that elevated temperatures also lead to more problems with air pollution.
Harvard research associate Loretta Mickley explains, "The air just cooks. The pollution accumulates, accumulates, accumulates, until a cold front
comes in and the winds sweep it away." Studies show that increased air pollution leads to an increase in hospital admissions not only for respiratory
problems, but also for cardiac problems.
According to current scientific model of global warming, the poles of the planet will warm up faster than the rest of Earth, which will lead to less cold fronts around the world.
"If this model is correct," continues Mickley, "global warming would cause an increase in difficult days for those affected by ozone pollution, such as people suffering with respiratory illnesses like asthma and those doing physical labor or exercising outdoors."
Genetic Engineering & Food Allergies
Genetic engineering involves introducing new DNA to an organism's genome. In the laboratory setting, genetic engineering has already led to advances in medicine and will inevitably lead to many more. However, many people are concerned about the genetically engineered organisms that are already
spreading throughout the environment - especially with the case of genetically modified (GM) foods.
Some scientists think that the rise in food allergies in recent years is due to the addition of GM food ingredients to the American diet. Thirty years ago, food allergies were rare, but now they affect more than 11 million Americans. Rates of peanut allergies in the U.S. doubled between 1997 and 2002.
GM foods entered the U.S. market in 1994 without any special labeling. Experts estimate that 60-70% of processed foods on shelves today contain GM
ingredients. The most common GM foods are soybeans, corn, and cotton. (Cottonseed oil is a common ingredient in many processed foods.)
In 1999, an annual study of food allergens in the U.K. found that soy allergies had increased 50% over the previous year. This trend coincided with
the first imports of GM soy from the U.S., which led scientists to strongly suspect a connection. A Monsanto company study on GM Bt corn (which the
company was forced to reveal through legal action) showed that rats who ate it experienced a significant increase in three types of immune system
blood cells, and a certain type of GM potato has been found to damage the immune systems of rats.
If you'd like to learn more about GM foods, watch the documentary The Future
of Food, which you can find at Google Video.
Environmentalism & Your Health
If you think about Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, which proposes that the whole planet is like a living organism, then it makes sense that damage to the environment will impact its inhabitants. In Lovelock's latest book The Revenge of Gaia, he
argues that the lack of respect we humans have shown for the planet (mainly through the damage done to rainforests and the reduction in planetary
biodiversity) is testing Earth's capacity to deal with the effects of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As long as we continue to disrespect the environment, environmental problems will put our health at risk.
What can we do to help save the planet?
When it comes to the fate of our environment, we humans can act either a cancer or a cure. Be mindful of your actions and respect the environment, and it will respect you.
Avoid the use of hazardous cleaning chemicals whenever possible. Instead of harsh cleaning agents that poison the environment, try the all-purpose, water-reducible, biodegradable M-1 House Wash.
Here is a list of things you can do to help save the planet:
- Turn off lights and electric devices when they're not being used.
- Use rechargeable batteries.
- Use energy-efficient light bulbs and appliances.
- Insulate your home to conserve energy.
- Use less hot water.
- Participate in a ride-share program or take public transportation to work.
- Walk or ride a bike when traveling short distances.
- Don't waste products made from forest resources.
- Eat less meat and dairy. (Cattle release tons of methane a year through flatulence.)
- Support "green" businesses.
- Plant trees.
- Recycle, reduce & reuse.
- Buy recycled products.
Avoid personal care products that contain toxic chemicals. Natural personal care products are better for your immune system and the planet.
Buy organic foods and products whenever possible. Organic products are grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or genetic engineering. Since GM foods are not labeled, the only way to avoid GM foods is to purchase whole, organic foods. Make your bed with organic sheets, organic blankets, and an organic mattress to avoid exposure to synthetic chemicals while you're sleeping. To learn more about organic products, see Organic Farming: Better for You and the Environment.
Originally published in the
September 2007 issue of
Allergy Consumer Report.
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