Hay fever threat from Joburg’s urban forest
According to experts, the city’s high density of trees and plants could result in Gauteng becoming the pollen epicentre of South Africa, and cases of hay fever have spiked in the province in recent months, particularly during spring.
If not treated adequately, hay fever could potentially trigger severe cases of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, which are likely to worsen over the years and could become life-threatening. Common symptoms of hay fever include sneezing, an itchy, runny or congested nose, post-nasal drip, a scratchy throat, and red, watery, itchy eyes.
Head of the allergy unit at the University of Cape Town’s Lung Institute, Professor Jonny Peter, said while Cape Town was considered to be the South African city worst hit by pollen emissions, more severe emissions were actually recorded in Johannesburg.,
“Johannesburg seems to top the list, with sufferers experiencing hay fever symptoms for up to 10 months of the year,” said Peter.
He explained that many of the plants in the Cape Floral Region were pollinated by insects and birds.
This was not the case in Johannesburg, which was situated in the transition zone between the country’s savanna and grassland biomes.
“Johannesburg residents may feel the impact (of pollen emissions) more than those in other parts of the country,” Peter said.
“With the vast number of grass species found in Gauteng, and the threat of other plants responsible for allergies - such as ragweed, which is migrating southwards because of climate change - the province could become the pollen epicentre of South Africa.”
He added that the devastating effects of climate change occurring around the globe, particularly in regard to rising temperatures, was contributing towards the high incidence of hay fever in Johannesburg.
“The hotter the Earth gets, and the more CO2 is in the air, the higher the amount of total atmospheric pollen,” said Peter.
He explained that CO2 was like a miracle fertiliser for pollen, and as CO2 continued to rise, so too would pollen levels.
“Scientists predict that pollen levels worldwide could quadruple in the next 20 to 30 years, which will worsen (the situation) for those that already suffer from hay fever, and those that don’t normally suffer from it are likely to be affected, too.”
He added that the incidence of asthma was also likely to increase.
As allergies are on the increase globally, and many airborne allergens are unknown and therefore make it difficult to treat and manage hay fever and other respiratory illnesses, Peter and his team at UCT have embarked on a national crowdfunding campaign to help make pollen monitoring in the country more sustainable.
They monitor pollen emissions with pollen traps, and each trap costs about R150000 to maintain over the course of a year.
“Monitoring pollen on a more sustainable basis will help us to better understand the impact of climate change on pollen seasons specific to our region and how pollen is evolving, in order to develop more effective treatments for local conditions.”
He added that through their project, they would be able to predict the intensity of pollen in upcoming seasons in Johannesburg, therefore accurately estimating the impact they would have on hay fever sufferers.
“We’ll also be able to advise on what precautions to take and when to start taking certain medications to help manage symptoms.”
Peter explained that it was not only hay fever sufferers who would benefit from their work as there was an increase in the incidences of different types of allergies every year, and he believed that all residents in Johannesburg were affected to some extent.
“Already, more than 17 million South Africans suffer from hay fever, a number which is only set to increase.”
His team was appealing for funds as pollen-monitoring was “a costly exercise and is funded privately around the world”. “The monitoring of pollen in the region has always been sporadic due to a lack of funds, but for the first time since the early 1990s Johannesburg has got a pollen spore trap up and running at the University of the Witwatersrand. However, funding dries up in 12 months, which is why the UCT Lung Institute is calling on Joburg residents to donate towards its pollen-monitoring efforts.”
Peter said a donation of just R50 towards their pollen-monitoring programme would go a long way. Those who would like to make a donation and get more information on the project can visit www.pollencount.co.za