A heavy thunderstorm sparked an unlikely series of events in Australia earlier this week, resulting in widespread reports of asthma attacks, overflowing hospitals, and the death of at least four people.
The thunderstorm took place on Monday November 21 over Melbourne, Australia's second-largest city. The heavy rainfall is believed to have soaked rye grass pollen, causing them to burst, spreading tiny specks of pollen across the city. The small pieces of pollen then made their way into the respiratory tracts of the local people and provoked asthma attacks, along with other breathing difficulties.
"When rye grass pollen becomes wet through humidity or water, it breaks up into a lot of small pieces and those small pieces can get past the nasal passage into the lungs. Normally rye grass would be trapped in the nasal passage," Robin Ould, from the Asthma Foundation of Victoria in Australia told AFP.
"When it gets into the lungs, the allergens that are there cause an asthma attack... the small bronchial tubes become inflamed, they fill with mucus and the muscles around them become tight and people can't exchange their air," he explained.
As crazy as it seems, “thunderstorm asthma” is a phenomenon documented in a handful of scientific studies. Although it is rare, Melbourne has had at least three other instances of them in the past few decades due to the high amounts of rye grass found in the farmlands surrounding the city. The phenomenon has also been seen before in the UK, in both London and Birmingham in 1994 and 1983, respectively.
The emergency services received 1,900 emergency phone calls within five hours on Monday evening, with some 8,500 patients heading to hospitals over the following two days. Four people died and, as of today, three patients remain in a critical condition, with nine more in intensive care. The majority of those affected had a history of asthma or hayfever.
“This was a health emergency of an unprecedented scale… It was like having 150 bombs going off right across a particular part of metropolitan Melbourne," Victorian state Health Minister Jill Hennessy said.