NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — This wet summer is likely to translate into a lot of runny noses, sneezing and itchy eyes for allergy sufferers.

The ragweed season began late in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area with the sighting of the first grain of pollen on August 17 by Leonard Bielory, M.D., a National Allergy Bureau-certified pollen counter and specialist in allergy and immunology with the Rutgers Center of Environmental Prediction at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences.

“While this has been the latest onset we have seen over the past five years, the peak will be quite high in the coming weeks due to the heavy rain precipitation we have had over the summer,” said Bielory, who is also associated with STARx Allergy & Asthma Center in Wall.

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Ragweed pollination is expected to continue until the first frost — not good news for allergy sufferers, especially since three of four Americans with allergies are allergic to ragweed pollen, he explained.

The monitoring of the pollen count that Bielory performs on a daily basis also appears to be consistent with his research that a changing climate means allergy-causing ragweed pollen has a longer season that extends farther north than it did just 16 years ago.

As a result, New Jersey appears to be increasing in duration of exposure to ragweed, based on the findings of Bielory and other researchers at Rutgers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Their research is included in an ongoing study funded in part by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to the study published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences," Bielory and other allergy experts found that ragweed pollen season lasted as much as 27 days longer in 2009 than it did in 1995, with increasing range northward resulting in a more dramatic change in the length of pollen season.

This was once a hypothesis and modeled as a possibility, “but it is a reality,” said Bielory, who was the principal investigator of the EPA grant. “This is affecting patients now.”

Allergies associated with ragweed pollen — three of four Americans who are allergic have ragweed allergies, also known as hay fever — cost  about $21 billion a year in the United States.

As global average temperatures have warmed, the first frost has been delayed, especially at higher latitudes, which has meant a longer season for ragweed. “Because warming is greater at these high latitudes, the length of the season has been more pronounced.”

In New Jersey, the season appears to have increased over the past 20 years. Hot and dry weather in source areas aid the release of ragweed pollen during the flowering season and result in the deep distribution needed to lift the pollen over the greater dispersion.

"Allergies that have been minor in the past are going to increase and become more of a clinical problem that may also impact patients with asthma,” Bielory said.

Ragweed is not the only pollen season affected, said Bielory, as the study has shown the impact on tree and grass pollen seasons that occur in the early and late spring. An examination of other species and other regions of the continental United States is ongoing.

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