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Got Allergies? Air Pollution Could Be to Blame

New research suggests that ozone and nitrogen dioxide can alter allergens, creating more potent immune responses

(Ian Lishman/Juice Images/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Are you already sneezing, sniffling and suffering from seasonal allergies? You’re not alone—new research shows that this year, two air pollutants connected with climate change could be contributing to a particularly bad allergy season.

Though scientists have long thought that air pollution and allergies could be linked, they haven’t understood exactly how, explains Sarah Kaplan for the Washington Post. Now, researchers have announced preliminary results of a study that suggests air pollution can actually make allergies more potent. When the study’s authors looked at how varying levels of ozone and nitrogen dioxide interact with birch pollen, they learned that the pollutants create a chain of chemical reactions that can actually alter the structures and effects of allergens.

For example, a bond between the pollen and nitrogen dioxide, Kaplan explains, exacerbates the body’s immune response to the allergen. And even when they don’t react with nitrogen dioxide, ozone-altered allergens can bond together and create a bigger, even more irritating molecule.

The pollutants don’t just up the potency of allergens, say scientists—they could also change the way our bodies respond to them, particularly in environments rich in humidity and smog. In a release, the team warned that as climate change worsens and pollutants rise, more allergies could ensue:

“Our research is showing that chemical modifications of allergenic proteins may play an important role in the increasing prevalence of allergies worldwide,” [study lead Christopher Kampf] says. “With rising levels of these pollutants we will have more of these protein modifications, and in turn, these modifications will affect the allergenic potential of the protein.”

As the team looks for more clues as to the effect of air pollution on allergies, another group of scientists has found a potential cure in an unlikely place—a dog kennel. ABC News reports that a team of researchers from the University of Arizona suspect that the bacteria in dog saliva could help human immune response.

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