Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Thunderstorm Asthma

In November 2016, emergency departments of Melbourne, Australia, were overwhelmed by a sudden surge of patients with asthma exacerbations. There was a 672% excess of breathing-related emergency presentations, with 992% more asthma-related admissions than normal. Many of these patients had never had asthma attacks before (72%), but most had a history of hay fever (95%).

The dramatic flood of patients put significant strain on hospital systems, highlighted by some hospitals running out of stocks of inhaled medicines for asthma exacerbations or rooms to treat patients in.

The cause of this bizarre epidemic – dubbed thunderstorm asthma – is still not clear, but it has been theorised to be related to pollens. It has been known for over 30 years that thunderstorms can pick up large volumes of pollen from one area, then dumped on an urban area far away. Because the pollen were exposed to high levels of moisture, they can burst into very small fragments that make it easier to be inhaled into the lungs, bypassing the natural filter systems in the nose.

There is also a possibility that these thunderstorms introduce pollen from species such as rye that are more allergenic than typical pollen found in residential areas, causing worse reactions.

The drastic increase in pollen density and increased penetration to the lungs can trigger a severe asthma attack, particularly in people whose immune systems are sensitive to pollen (hay fever). In the case of the 2016 Melbourne event, ten people ended up dying, while more than 500 excess people were admitted to hospital compared to the normal asthma admission rate.

Instances of thunderstorm asthma have been recorded throughout the world, but scientists have not been able to prove the exact cause. It is a staunch reminder that nature and the environment have direct impacts on our health, in ways we may not even be able to imagine.

Posted in History & Literature


We are often corrected by others (as much as we correct others) on the proper pronunciation of words. Luckily, improper pronunciation is rarely consequential (other than sparking debates such as how to pronounce the word “gif”). However, on numerous occasions throughout history, this was not the case.

During World War 2, American soldiers in the Pacific Theatre came up with a questionable way of detecting enemy soldiers pretending to be allies to sneak in to bases. If a suspicious person was to approach a checkpoint claiming that they were an American or Filipino soldier, the sentry would ask them to say a certain word. The word was “lollapalooza” – an American colloquialism for something that is exceptional and extraordinary. The basis for this test was that Japanese people tend to pronounce the English letter “l” as “r” due to the difference in the two languages. Therefore, if the person was to repeat back “rorra-” they would be immediately shot.

This seems like a highly inaccurate method. What if they were an American soldier who had a bad head cold, or a lisp? But this type of racial profiling by the way someone pronounces a certain word has been commonly used throughout history to filter out people of certain races. Lollapalooza is an example of a shibboleth – a word that can distinguish people of a certain race by their inability to properly pronounce it.

The word comes from the Biblical story of the Ephraimites. When the Gileadites were invaded by the Ephraimites, they fought back and repelled the Ephraimites, who tried to retreat by crossing the River Jordan. The Gileadites planned ahead by securing the river so that they could capture the Ephraimites. They ordered each person crossing the river to say the word “shibboleth”. Because the Ephraimite’s dialect did not include a way to pronounce the “sh” sound, they would repeat back “sibboleth” and were killed on the spot.

Unfortunately, shibboleths have typically been used to identify members of a certain race so that they could be massacred. Nowadays, shibboleths are used in a more light-hearted manner. For example, New Zealanders and Australians mock each other on how each pronounce the words fish and chips. Because New Zealanders pronounce the “i” with a shorter sound, Australians tease that they say “fush and chups”. On the other hand, New Zealanders mock Australians on their long “i” sounds that make it sound as if they are saying “feesh and cheeps”.