Rising carbon dioxide levels associated with global warming could lead to an increase in the incidence of allergies to ragweed and other plants by mid-century, according to a report appearing in the March Annals of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology by Harvard University researchers. The study found that ragweed grown in an atmosphere with double the current carbon dioxide levels produced 61 percent more pollen than normal. Such a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide is expected to occur between 2050 and 2100. “The side effects of carbon dioxide, as well as its impact on heat budget and the water cycle, have to be taken very seriously,” said Paul Epstein, MD, Harvard Medical School instructor in medicine and associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at HMS. “I believe this study can help us understand the true costs of burning fossil fuels.”
Ragweed, which flourishes along roadsides and in disturbed habitats throughout North America, produces one of the most common allergens. The researchers grew ragweed plants from seeds in two different enclosed environments. One was maintained at 350 parts carbon dioxide to a million parts air, which is roughly the current level. The other module was maintained at 700 parts carbon dioxide to a million parts air.
In addition to producing more allergens-and possibly more allergy sufferers-such a trend could alter competitive relationships among different plants, encouraging the growth of weedy species. “Rising carbon dioxide levels may skew the whole ecological community by affecting reproductive power,” he said. The study highlights the need to reduce carbon dioxide levels. “Carbon dioxide is greater than it has been for 420,000 years,” Epstein said. From that time until as recently as the Industrial Revolution, it was only 280 parts per million of air.
“We’re outside the envelope, we’re pushing the envelope on the terrestrial feedback mechanisms that have drawn down carbon dioxide,” Epstein said. “This all points to our need to change our energy diet.”