New insight into thunderstorm asthma epidemic

In 2016, strong storms moved through southeastern Australia causing a major thunderstorm asthma epidemic striking Melbourne and surrounding areas, offering researchers an opportunity to study the condition.
By Amy Wallace   |   April 19, 2017 at 2:06 PM
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April 19 (UPI) -- Researchers at the University of Georgia are working to uncover the causes of thunderstorm asthma outbreaks in order to better predict and prevent them.

Thunderstorm activity can exacerbate asthma and allergy symptoms due to high grass pollen concentrations and other outdoor allergens being dispersed by strong, gusty winds.

In the fall of 2016, strong thunderstorms in southeastern Australia led to a major thunderstorm asthma epidemic leading to multiple deaths and a large number of patients seeking medical care for respiratory problems.

Researchers at the University of Georgia and Emory University analyzed well-known aspects of thunderstorm diagnostics often used by meteorologists to assess storm severity.

"Thunderstorm asthma is a very complex phenomenon and involves interactions of allergens like grass pollens, thunderstorms and susceptible groups of people," Andrew J. Grundstein, professor of geography in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, said in a press release. "Our study may help anticipate significant thunderstorms by employing a technique that helps identify wind magnitude commonly associated with thunderstorm asthma outbreaks."

Researchers found that the combination of rainfall, winds and lightning from thunderstorms along with pollen or mold spores can worsen asthma symptoms. During thunderstorms, electrical activity adds to further pollen fragmentation, while gusty winds can spread pollen granules ahead of a thunderstorm. Rainfall and high humidity rupture bioaerosols like rye grass pollen grains.

"While this study does not yet provide the capability of predicting thunderstorm asthma outbreaks, our methodology may provide a key piece to the puzzle for alerting public health officials about what storms may trigger an episode and which ones may not," Marshall Shepherd, professor of geography and atmospheric sciences at UGA, said.

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology.

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