Monday, November 23, 2009

Climate Change Increasing Food Allergies

I’ve written before about oral allergy syndrome – the concept that allergen proteins, whether in pollens or in foods, belong to a limited number of protein families, and that many pollen proteins are similar enough in structure to unrelated food proteins that a sensitivity to one can make you susceptible to the other, even though the two plants aren’t technically related. For example, an allergy to birch may make you allergic to peanuts, because some of the proteins found in birch pollen is similar in structure to some of the proteins in peanuts. So even though the two plants aren’t related at all, the birch pollen, which gets into your lungs freely because it’s airborne, can eventually trigger an allergic reaction to peanuts. (See "Regional Differences in Food Allergies.")

I also talked about how this oral allergy syndrome may explain why different foods are the allergic culprits in different parts of the world – because the weeds and trees in England are different from the weeds and trees in Africa, for example, the common food allergies also vary between the two regions.

Now there are starting to be several studies that show this oral allergy syndrome affect is increasing because of global climate change.

In a nutshell, researchers are discovering that with the longer warm seasons and melting ice caps, more land mass is staying warmer longer, producing more and more plants. Ragweed, for example, is thriving for more weeks every year in some parts of America. That means not only a lengthening of hay fever season for pollen sufferers, but also more exposure in expanding areas where people can become susceptible to the corresponding food allergens.

Australian scientist Dr. Paul Beggs was awarded the OSMR Jamkie Callachor Eureka Prize for Medical Research in Australia this year (Australia’s most prestigious science award) for his research on the effect climate change is having on allergens. As explained in the article “Global Allergic Reaction” from the Australian Museum, which awards the Eureka Prize, “Dr. Beggs published the first academic papers on the possible impacts of increasing temperatures and changing rainfall patterns on asthma; air-based allergens (such as pollen) and plant food allergens such as peanuts.”

Dr. Beggs isn’t the only one researching these links between climate change and allergies. For example, other scientists have shown that people exposed to higher levels of ragweed pollen and ozone together are more likely to suffer from allergies than from either substance alone.

The scientific literature is filled with studies showing direct, distinct correlations between climate change and various elements of human health, and the link between warming temperatures and both airborne and food-borne allergens is astonishing.

Just something to think about the next time we food allergy sufferers have an opportunity to do something proactive for the environment.

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