This year, complaints of allergies being worse than ever dominate the scientific conversation. A recent study found that two common pollutants interact with a major pollen allergen at a chemical level, and create an even more potent trigger for runny noses.
Allergic rhinitis, also known as nasal allergies, affect between 10 and 30 percent of global population, according to the World Health Organization, with that proportion on the rise. To explain the phenomenon, scientists suspected that allergies were linked to air pollution and climate change, but had to explanation for how this might happen, said Ulrich Poschl, study’s co-author, working at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany.
“Our research was to explore mechanistically how that all works,” Poschl said.
Using laboratory tests and computer simulations, Poschl and his colleagues looked at how ozone and nitrogen dioxide interacted with a birch pollen allergen called Bet v1.
Scientists found that ozone sets off a chain of chemical reactions that change its protein structure. Further, the altered allergen is then more likely to bond with nitrogen dioxide, which exacerbates immune response.
The study, which is considered preliminary since it has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal, added that the pollutants’ impact on allergies goes beyond the chemical level. By contributing to climate change, air pollution helps raise average temperatures and prolong the pollination season. These factors also exacerbate spring allergies by making pollen more common and more potent.
“Humans are not just affecting but shaping the environment … it’s actually unreasonable to assume that it would not affect humans with our highly delicate immune system,” Poschl said. “That’s the background motivation for these kinds of studies.”