Nothing to sneeze at

Pollen from hardwoods exacerbates allergies

Posted: Wednesday, June 20, 2007


  Pollen levels from hardwood trees have been higher than normal the past two years, according to some medical experts. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Pollen levels from hardwood trees have been higher than normal the past two years, according to some medical experts.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

A runny nose in the summer isn’t unusual for Carlise Eck. As one of the 25 percent of the United States population suffering from allergies, Eck will not only be greeted by family and friends when she comes home from college this summer, a swarm of pollen granuels wait to assault her mucus membranes, making her eyes water and her nose run.

“I don’t remember having these problems when I was younger,” said Eck, a biology student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She said she will return to her home in Ninilchik in the next two weeks for the Kenai River Classic.

“(It was) probably in high school when most of them showed up,” she said.

Although she suffers from a mild form of allergies, Eck said they were at their worse summer 2002.

“It felt like I had a cold the whole summer,” she said. “My head stopped up, I couldn’t stop sneezing, my eyes were watery and red, and I had taken quite a few different types of over the counter meds and none of them really affected anything.”

Alaska may be known for its extremes, but many wouldn’t rank birch pollen among them. Yet every year when it comes to birch pollen, Alaska and Norway seem to go neck and neck for the highest levels in the world. Dr. Jeffrey Demain, director of the Allergy Asthma Immunology Center of Alaska, said it isn’t unusual for birch pollen to break records in Alaska.

“Birch pollen often travels hundreds of miles into the stratosphere,” he said. “Low pressure cells, pollution and forest fires bring it down to our nose and eye level.”

While most people on the Kenai Peninsula and in other parts of Alaska blame their allergies on fireweed, cottonwood fluff and other flowering plants, Demain said the pollen that tickles noses are so tiny it would take a microscope to see them.

“Fireweed is not a wind pollinated plant,” he said. “Fireweeds are pollinated by insects, so people don’t have allergies to fireweed.”

Pollen levels of all kinds fluctuate as the seasons change, said Demain, who has been monitoring pollen levels in Alaska since 1995. Typically pollen from aspen, birch and other hardwoods dissipates during the month of June while grass pollens increase. But things seemed to have gone differently during the week of June 11.

“Trees shot up to a high severity level,” Demain said. Alder seemed to be the principal irritant on the pollen charts while birch came in a close second, and grasses and weeds were at low severity levels. “(It’s) a little unusual and I don’t know what to attribute it to,” he said.

The pollen chart Demain referred to can be found on the National Allergy Bureau’s (NAB) Web site,, but contains information only for the city of Anchorage.

Larry Taylor, environmental engineer for the Anchorage Department of Health, works with the Municipal Health Department to monitor all EPA-designated air contaminants. That doesn’t include pollen, but he says the department knows that information is helpful, especially since 12 percent of Anchorage’s population lives with asthma. When White Environmental Consultants, an Anchorage-based consulting firm, wanted to build a pollen testing site on top of their office building, Taylor asked that they become certified first.

“(We) do the monitoring on Sunday, Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Taylor said. “The results are published on NAB’s Web site Monday, Wednesday and Friday.”

In order to measure pollen levels, Taylor said they take a microscope slide, cover it with a greasy substance so the dust and pollen will stick and put it through a two-foot high machine outside where it collects particulate matter for a 24-hour period for analysis.

With the Kenai and Chugach mountains separating the peninsula from Anchorage, it’s unlikely that any pollen reaching that microscope slide came from the Kenai Peninsula. Bekah Waltuch, an environmental scientist and laboratory analysis for White Environmental Consulting, said a lot of the pollens that make it to the slides come from the city’s greenbelts and parks.

Dr. Rod Hall, a family practitioner at MediCenter in Kenai, said he sees a lot of allergy patients, and while he can treat most of them with antihistamines and decongestants, some of them have to travel to Anchorage for treatment. Finding a way to set up a pollen-testing site on the Kenai Peninsula would really benefit the community, he said.

“Kenai (is) a hundred miles from Anchorage and if you go down to Homer, then we’re getting closer to 200 miles,” he said. “We would definitely benefit.”

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