The Wall Street Journal: “Meet the Pollen Counters”

The Forecast Calls for a Brutal but Short Allergy Season; Which Plants to Avoid



May 5, 2014 7:14 p.m. ET

As allergy season gets under way in the Northeast, how will a long winter impact pollen counts? WSJ's Sumathi Reddy joins Lunch Break to discuss. 

New York

Your daily misery index begins here on the roof of a Fordham University building with a rudimentary contraption that gradually draws in air and, with it, the microscopic pollen grains that give many people the sniffles and sneezes this time of year.

Every few days Guy Robinson, a lecturer in natural sciences at Fordham, traipses up to the roof to retrieve the clear Melinex tape mounted on the device's steel drum, attached to which are pollen grains from the surrounding area.

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Back in the laboratory, Dr. Robinson mounts the tape on a slide, examines it under a microscope and counts the grains species by species. He will report the results to the National Allergy Bureau, a network of pollen-counting stations. The data, from Dr. Robinson and other pollen counters around the country, are used by medical professionals to gauge the severity of the allergy season. They also are used by commercial organizations like the Weather Channel to help create pollen forecasts.

"There's not really a great shortcut" to getting pollen counts, said Dr. Robinson, 59 years old, who also oversees a pollen station in Armonk, N.Y., and teaches science classes at Fordham. "Everybody sort of thinks that there ought to be a technology, but reading pollen grains is a bit like facial recognition. It still takes a human eye to do it."

Some 30% to 40% of Americans suffer from hay fever and many regularly monitor daily pollen counts, which can make the difference between going outside or staying indoors with the windows closed. Allergy season is well under way in regions including the South but is just beginning in the Northeast. For much of the country, cold, wet weather this spring delayed the onslaught of pollen, but could result in a shorter, albeit more severe season—what some people are calling a pollen vortex. This has been the case in places like Atlanta and Denver, where allergy season started later than usual but has proven to be intense, allergists say.

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Brian Harkin for The Wall Street Journal (6); Science Source/Photo Researchers, Inc. (pollen)

"As soon as the weather finally warmed up the trees went nuts," with pollen counts running two or three times higher than usual, said Richard Weber, an allergy specialist and professor of medicine at National Jewish Health in Denver. "When it happened it was extremely vigorous."

People are allergic to different pollens, and it is common to have reactions to multiple types, experts say. In the spring, trees generally release pollen first, followed by grass pollen in the late spring and then weeds, such as ragweed.

Dr. Robinson isn't making any predictions about allergy season in the New York area, though he says counts so far have been low—under 100 pollen particles per cubic meter of air. On one day last week, the count was just 18. At the height of the season, the numbers can well exceed 1,000.

Stepping outside, Dr. Robinson points to the brown, dangling tassels on a birch tree, called catkins. "Each one of these has, like, 100 flowers on it," he said. "The tip is still closed but in the process of unfolding they will release pollen."

"We're getting a little hint of oak," said Dr. Robinson. "They're probably all going to open at once. They're just dangling there, ready to open." Peak tree-pollen counts in the New York area usually occur when the birch pollen overlaps with the oak, he said.

Dr. Robinson, a trained ecologist, is one of 166 volunteer pollen counters certified by the National Allergy Bureau, part of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, which represents medical professionals. The volunteers, who monitor 79 counting stations across the U.S., are required to pass a test that includes accurately identifying different types of pollen on a microscope slide. The pollen counts are available free to the public. A Weather Channel spokeswoman says its pollen forecasts are based on recent, observed pollen levels, including from most of the National Allergy Bureau's counters; an area's historical pollen trends and expected weather conditions.

Stanley Fineman, an allergist and volunteer pollen counter in Atlanta, has a pollen-counting device mounted on the roof of one of his offices. The counter is monitored by technicians daily. "We do it every day because as allergists we're trying to figure out what causes patients' symptoms so we need to know what's in the air," said Dr. Fineman, a past president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, another professional organization.

Tree-pollen counts in Atlanta were very high for most of April, hitting 4,054 particles per cubic meter of air on April 11, Dr. Fineman said. Recently they have come down with the rain, but grass season is expected to start soon.

Science Source/Photo Researchers, Inc

Diana Williams, a 76-year-old in Marietta, Ga., said her eyes have been itching like crazy for the past few weeks. "This week I had one of the worst days I've had in ages," said Ms. Williams, a patient of Dr. Fineman's who gets regular allergy shots. "It was really windy and I think the pollen was just blowing everywhere."

On really bad days, Ms. Williams said she will also use Zaditor, antihistamine eye drops, and take an over-the-counter allergy medication so she can continue with her usual outdoor activities and yard work.

The first line of defense for most people with allergies is antihistamines, but they don't always work, experts say. Nasal steroid sprays are the most effective therapy, but these have required a prescription, said Dr. Weber, the Denver allergy specialist.

This year the first topical nasal steroid spray—Nasacort—became available over-the-counter. Experts say allergy shots, known as subcutaneous immunotherapy, are usually used for patients with severe symptoms.

A new type of therapy was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration—immunotherapy tablets that dissolve under the tongue. The tablets, an alternative to allergy shots, have been commonly used in other countries. The first dose is meant to be taken in a doctor's office and then they are taken once a day at home. The tablets work best if started about 12 weeks before a particular pollen emerges.

Each type of immunotherapy tablet is only effective against a single kind of pollen. The FDA approved three tablets, two for grass pollens and one for ragweed. That means people who are also allergic to pollen from trees and other types of weeds, for instance, will have to find other treatments. Allergists say they are just beginning to get the first shipments of the tablets and expect they will be in use soon.

Researchers are developing ways to improve pollen forecasting. Estelle Levetin, a biology professor at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, said she has been working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to try to devise a system that uses satellite imagery.

Currently the team is looking at cedar trees to test if satellite images can reveal when the trees are ready to release pollen, said Dr. Levetin, a member of the aerobiology committee for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Cedar trees work well because they are evergreens, she said. When the male cones are ready to release pollen they turn brown, and satellite images may be able to pick up the color difference.