A combination of wildfires and high pollen counts could be the culprit for allergy and respiratory issues experienced lately by Western North Carolina residents. In March and April, regional wildfires burned more acres than the monthly average, according to data released by the N.C. Forest Service.
In April, acreage destroyed by wildfires reached a 10-year high and led to several Code Orange days. That is, ambient air in the region was potentially unhealthy for sensitive groups or individuals.
Throughout this spring season, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality issued several public health notices for the mountain region, warning that “high particle levels can impair breathing and aggravate symptoms in people with respiratory problems and irritate the lungs in healthy individuals.” It added that “people with chronic lung ailments and children should reduce physical exertion and outdoor activity.”
Even though rainfall and fire crews contained most of the fires, the effects are still being felt by many WNC residents who suffer from allergies or respiratory issues. According to DEQ air quality data, there were several orange alerts issued for Asheville in May and June despite the absence of major wildfires.
While wildfires can release harmful fine particulates into the air, the types of particulates released by fires aren’t typically associated with allergy responses. However, this fire season has seen WNC suffering from allergy-related issues at an unusually high rate, according to several allergy specialists in the area.
Nancy Hyton, an acupuncturist and herbalist at the Asheville-based Center for Holistic Medicine, says this has been one of the worst allergy seasons she has seen. “Every year I see people in the spring for allergy-related symptoms, but this year has been exceptional,” Hyton says. “Not only have I seen my regular patients, but more and more people who have never had allergies before are complaining of them this year. In fact, I myself experienced allergy symptoms this year for the first time.”
Sam Del Vecchio, licensed acupuncturist at Asheville’s Alternative Allergy Solutions, also reports an increase in allergy-related issues around the time of the fires. “Forty percent of my clients experienced a short-term worsening of allergy symptoms on the days of the fires,” Del Vecchio says. “Combustion is a source of very fine particles, like dust, so I’m not surprised.”
The National Allergy Bureau has reported high pollen counts this spring, particularly tree pollen. Kimberly Roberts, a registered nurse and certified clinical research coordinator who tracks pollen counts for Allergy Partners of WNC, says pollen counts throughout April were indeed much higher than usual this early in the season. Pollen data collected by the DEQ show severe spikes in tree pollen counts throughout March and April, followed by similar spikes in grass pollen throughout May and June.
The wildfire-pollen combination may be behind the particularly severe allergy season WNC is witnessing. A 2015 study at France’s Armand Trousseau Children’s Hospital found that atmospheric pollutants, such as those released in car exhaust or even wildfires, can lead to an increased allergy response in susceptible individuals through a process known as pollen nitration.
This process occurs when some atmospheric pollutants react with and modify pollen proteins, which can trigger an increased immune response in some individuals. A 2014 study reports that allergy prevalence has been increasing in developed nations and proposes pollen nitration as the cause. While some research suggests that pollen nitration could be responsible for the increase in allergy prevalence, the mechanism by which it increases allergic reactions to pollen is still not well understood.
Whatever the causes might be, this spring was harder than usual on WNC residents. Christine Preiser, licensed accupuncturist with WNC Acupuncture, treated a higher-than-usual number of allergy sufferers in April and May. “People started coming in with major sinus issues and sinus headaches,” Preiser says. “Compared with last year and the year before, there was a great increase in people suffering from allergies. People are coming in with more issues.”
Despite the allergy issues some Western North Carolinians are suffering, the region’s air remains consistently clean with very few Code Orange days, says Tom Mather, public information officer with the DEQ Division of Air Quality. According to Mather and DEQ data, air quality in the region has been improving steadily for the past 15 years, and annual statewide emissions are at a 20-year low.
Mather also says that while the wildfires can pose threats to air quality in affected areas, ozone still remains the most pressing concern in the region, particularly in the warmer months. The variations in elevation throughout WNC can create conditions that trap pockets of ozone and worsen air quality for low-lying areas, he explains.
In order to reduce their impact on air quality, DEQ recommends that residents take measures to lower their energy consumption. The agency also advises that all actions that burn fossil fuels — from automobiles to air conditioning — should be used as little as possible. However, with increased growth in the region, power plant emissions and automobile traffic are steadily rising. For more suggestions on how to do your part to improve air quality, DEQ has released a guide for North Carolina residents on its website.
The state agency also recommends that residents who suffer from respiratory distress or allergy issues stemming from air quality limit their outdoor activity and exercise, particularly when wildfires are present. And while air pollution masks aren’t a common sight outside of developing nations, individuals with sensitivities of any kind might look into wearing a mask for days when air quality forecasts are unfavorable. Masks with a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-approved N95 rating should be sufficient to filter out particulates related to wildfires as well as some allergens; they can be found inexpensively at most hardware stores, according to a N.C. Division of Public Health publication regarding wildfires and public health.
Despite wildfires and urban growth, WNC has some of the cleanest air in the state, thanks to a lower population density than other urban areas and a higher concentration of forests, Mather says.
For air forecasts and DEQ air quality data, visit NCair.org.