Pollen Follies: Allergy Season in Full Bloom
Allergy season. For some poor souls, it seems to last most of the year. But as the old song says, "Spring can really hang you up the most"—especially when those heavy clouds of pollen arrive to make life a misery for vast numbers of hay fever sufferers.
The 2010 allergy season is shaping up to be a bad one. Atlanta is suffering near-record pollen counts this spring. And unusually warm weather in some parts of the country, including New England, have kicked off the sneezing season early.
In the US overall, the odds an adult will have hay fever in a year are 1 in 13.22, but some age groups suffer much more: for adults 45 - 64 it's 1 in 10.56, and the odds an adolescent 12 - 17 will have hay fever in a year are 1 in 6.94 (14%). Income levels matter too: curiously, rich people are significantly more likely to suffer from hay fever than those with more modest means. And women are more susceptible, with odds of 1 in 11.82 versus 1 in 15.13 for men.
Hay fever odds also vary by region. The odds an adult in the Northeast will have hay fever in a year are 1 in 12.08. In the West, 1 in 11 adults suffer. Across the Pacific, a 2003 study found 13% of Japanese get hay fever—1 in 7.7—and a more recent article in Japan Today put the proportion at an even higher 1 in 5, noting that the market for Japanese surgical masks—designed to combat allergens as well as germs—runs into the area of $140 million. The problem is partly self-inflicted; Japan's postwar reforestation policy stressed planting cedars, which produce a great deal of pollen to which millions of people became sensitive.
Pollen problems can even sour international relations: Toyota's recent image issues weren't helped when a company spokesman appeared wearing a surgical mask, offending some Americans who interpreted it as an attempt to hide his identity.
Joining masks in the anti-allergy arsenal are everything from nose plugs to ringtones; dazed sufferers are willing to try almost anything to beat the symptoms. But stopping hay fever at its source might be a more practical option. A recent New York Times op-ed urged New York City to change some of its street trees to less pollinating varieties. For example, the Big Apple has many thousands of Norway maples and London plane trees, accounting for nearly 30% of its arboreal population. These species are monoecious, meaning they sport flowers of both sexes, so they always produce pollen. Planting more female trees and more low-pollen species would reap less misery.
Read our related article: Hay Fever—and Hookworms—for the Wealthy.