"While a three percent increase in risk may seem modest, the increase could have a significant public health impact for a region with more than five million people"

Andrew Grundstein
Department of Geography







Asthma: The thunderstorm connection

Philip Lee Williams


A link between thunderstorms and subsequent hospital visits for asthma attacks has been studied worldwide for years, but now for the first time researchers have demonstrated this relationship in the Southeastern United States—in the metro Atlanta area.

A team of climatologists and epidemiologists from the University of Georgia and Emory University studied a database of more than 10 million emergency-room visits in some 41 hospitals in a 20-county area in and around Atlanta for the period 1993–2004. As a result, they found a 3 percent higher incidence of visits for asthma attacks on days following thunderstorms.

“While a three percent increase in risk may seem modest, the increase could have a significant public health impact for a region with more than five million people,” said Andrew Grundstein, a climatologist in the department of geography at UGA and lead author on the research, which was published in the July 2008 issue of the medical journal Thorax.

“The most prominent hypotheses explaining the associations,” the authors write, “are that pollen grains rupture by osmotic shock in rainwater, releasing allergens, and that gusty winds from thunderstorm downdrafts spread particles and/or aeroallergens, which may ultimately increase the risk of asthma attacks.”

Asthma’s Toll

  • 20 million Americans have asthma, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
  • Asthma prevalence in the United States increased 75 percent between 1980 and 1994.
  • Some 5,000 Americans die annually from asthma attacks.
  • Approximately 210,000 Georgia children under the age of 17 have asthma, according to the Division of Public Health, Georgia Department of Human Resources.

Paige Tolbert, chair of the department of environmental and occupational health at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health and a coauthor of the study, said the expertise of the two universities came together strongly in studying the problem.

“The Emory team had experience with a comprehensive emergency-department database and the UGA team provided a much more refined characterization of thunderstorms than was performed in the previous studies on this question,” she said.

Other authors of the paper included Marshall Shepherd and Thomas Mote of the UGA department of geography; Luke Naeher of the UGA department of environmental health science; and Stefanie Ebelt Sarnat and Mitchell Klein of Emory’s department of environmental and occupational health.

The next step for the UGA/Emory team will be to combine the metro Atlanta database with Doppler radar, modeling, and observational data. The reason is that while the published study’s results were telling, said Grundstein, they were probably conservative. Now the team will be able to “correlate thunderstorm-asthma interactions that we are probably missing today.”

For more information, contact Andrew Grundstein at: or Stefanie Ebelt Sarnat at:


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