To date, 12 to 28% of the European population suffers from hay fever and the number of asthma and allergenic rhinitis patients keeps rising at a dramatic rate. There is growing evidence that changes in land use and vegetation composition — driven by climate change and human intervention — may increase the emission, dispersion and allergenicity of airborne allergenic pollen grains, prompting a further decline in the quality of life of allergy-sufferers as well as increasing socio-economic costs. Green spaces are generally assumed to have a negative effect on allergy-sufferers due to the higher pollen levels they emit. Yet, the role that plants and plant assemblages or plant diversity play in the complex interaction between pollen, environmental conditions and allergy symptoms in patients, is still partly unknown and ambiguous. Although recent studies indicate that plant diversity might also have a mitigating effect on the prevalence of allergies and asthma as well as on the severity of its symptoms, quantitative evidence is still lacking.
In this light, the RespirIT project aims at exploring and understanding the spatial and temporal effects of plant diversity on respiratory health in general and allergic asthma and allergenic rhinitis specifically. The project aims at examining three aspects of this relationship:
1. the chronic health effects: does long term exposure to plant diversity have an impact on the risk of allergy or asthma prevalence?
2. the acute health effects: does recent exposure to plant diversity have an impact on the acute expression of allergenic symptom severity?
3. possible future health effects: how will future changes in plant diversity, coupled to climate and land use changes, have an impact on 1. and 2.?
To that end, the RespirIT project will recruit volunteers that are allergic to pollen of tree species of the birch family (Betulaceae) and equip these volunteers with a tracking system consisting of a smartphone, a dedicated application and a smartwatch. The application will record activity, heart rate, stress and spatial location (whereabouts) of the participants as well as self-reported allergic symptoms via an ad-hoc reporting system and a daily medical diary. By linking this information to spatially explicit information regarding plant diversity, air quality and pollen concentrations we will be able to quantitatively, dynamically and spatially study plant diversity effects on allergic symptom severity in a near real-time GIS environment.