Research links thunderstorms and asthma attacks

In the first in-depth study of its kind ever done in the Southeastern United States, researchers at the University of Georgia and Emory University have discovered a link between thunderstorms and asthma attacks.

The team, studying a database consisting of more than 10 million emergency room visits in some 41 Atlanta, Georgia-areas hospitals for the period between 1993 and 2004, found a three percent higher incidence of visits for asthma attacks on days following thunderstorms.

Andrew Grundstein, a climatologist in the department of geography at UGA and lead author on the research, explained to Fox 46 that thunderstorms can pickup and throw pollen particles over a large area. The storm will burst the pollen particles before winds carry the exposed particles over a large area.

"When you're looking at a city of a million people or so, you can get an uptick of people seeking medical attention," Dr. Grundstein told Fox 46. "And we really didn't account for people who may have treated themselves at home."

Some people may find it odd that thunderstorms, which supposedly "clear the air" of pollen and pollutants, are implicated in asthma attacks. The most prominent hypothesis as to why it happens, the authors of the paper say, is that "pollen grains may rupture upon contact with rainwater, releasing respirable allergens, and that gusty winds from thunderstorm downdrafts spread particles . . . which may ultimately increase the risk of asthma attacks."

In all, during the 11-year period, there were 564 thunderstorm days, and in order to better understand the physical mechanisms that relate thunderstorms and asthma, the team also mined the information on total daily rainfall and maximum five-second wind gusts, which they used as "a surrogate for thunderstorm downdrafts and to indicate the maximum wind speed of the storm."

In all, there were 215,832 asthma emergency room visits during the period and 28,350 of these occurred on days following thunderstorms. While the  study is the first of its kind in the South and does clearly indicate a relationship between thunderstorms and asthma in the metro Atlanta area, much more work remains, Grundstein said.

"Obtaining a better understanding of the mechanistic basis of the phenomenon of thunderstorm-induced asthma will allow for better intervention strategies and improved emergencies services planning," said Stefanie Ebelt Sarnat of Emory. "This will be particularly important in the era of climate change."

Click here to learn more about the study.