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As pollen torments millions, it might be getting worse, and it's poorly measured in America

Anthony R. Wood, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA – He found masses of pollen as thick as “oatmeal,” and once discovered that grains from palm trees had ridden the winds for hundreds of miles to reach his front porch.

For 17 years, Timothy Craig intercepted the airborne gametes of trees, grasses, and weeds with a whirling trap, assiduously examined the captives with a microscope, and posted his inferred daily pollen counts for the benefit of science and the allergy-tormented.

Not many people are going through that much trouble these days. “It’s very labor-intensive and time-intensive,” said Craig, a professor of medicine and pediatrics in allergy and immunology at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

More than 50 million Americans suffer from various pollen allergies, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology — and, perhaps surprisingly, the numbers might be highest and the symptoms the worst in urban areas such as Philadelphia.

But who’s counting? The National Allergy Bureau lists fewer than 90 certified reporting stations nationwide, only one in the Philadelphia region.

“Pollen observations are sparse, sporadic, not standardized, often hard to come by,” said Fiona Lo, a scientist with the University of Washington.

 

Many governments mandate tracking chemical pollutants that in some cases might take years to affect people, notes German toxicologist Joeren Buters, but not for pollen that can immediately set off sneezing, coughing, and respiratory discomfort as bodies fight off the microscopic attackers.

Along with leaving sufferers in the dark, pollen experts say, the data voids are impediments to forecasting — and to research at a time when concerns are growing about pollen volumes in a warming climate.

In stations per capita, the United States ranks well behind Japan, the world leader, as well as Italy, France, Spain, and Germany, according to an analysis led by Buters, deputy director of the Center of Allergy and Environment, in Munich.

“Among the pollen researchers, it’s well-known that the U.S. pollen data is insufficient,” said Lo.

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