Season of love and runny noses

Springtime in Central Park, Sunday April 13, 2014, in Manhattan, New York City. (Photo/Camilo Gomez)
Springtime in Central Park, Sunday April 13, 2014, in Manhattan, New York City. (Photo/Camilo Gomez)

—Warmer temperatures have finally announced the arrival of springtime: a season of chirping birds, buzzing bees, blossoming flowers… and sneezing humans. After this year’s harsh winter, experts predict high levels of pollen this season.

“We saw a very wet winter,” said Clifford Bassett, MD, an allergy and asthma expert, in a phone interview at the start of the season. He said that the heavy precipitation in the winter had saturated the roots of trees and this will cause them to produce large quantities of pollen.

People with allergies to oak pollen are in for a rough time, in particular. The oak became the dominant tree species in the North East after the population of American elm began declining because of the Dutch elm disease —a fungal disease carried by a beetle.

Dr. Carsten Glaeser, an independent consulting arborist in New York City, cannot say whether the species that have replaced the American elm, such as the oak, have had an effect in the quantities of pollen in the air. But he knows that for the next few weeks, he’s going to have to put up with uncomfortable symptoms.

“As a tree expert, I happen to be allergic to oak pollen,” he says. “I’m outside all the time. I get it directly, I get the itchy eyes.”

But other than the physical discomfort it produces, ‘hay fever’ moves a large quantity of money nationwide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in a 2008 report titled, Review of the Impacts of Climate Variability and Change on Aeroallergens and Their Associated Effects, states that the direct medical costs of hay fever in the country are $6.2 billion per year in 2005 U.S. dollars.

Lucio Tolentino, 26, a graduate student in computer science who moved to New York City less than a year ago, began experiencing seasonal allergies in early adulthood and suffers allergy-induced asthma. Despite otherwise good health, he takes pills, uses antihistamine eye-drops and an inhaler.

“If I go out exercising I take a puff, preemptively,” he says.

Tolentino is not alone, as some research suggests an increase in allergies in the past years. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, 23.6 million people in the U.S. were diagnosed with hay fever in 2013. Still, trees are advantageous to cities that have them, say experts.

According to the website of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, they help to cool down the city in the summer, soak up storm water, and reduce ozone formation —which can cause respiratory problems— not to mention their aesthetic appeal. In addition, the benefit of street trees in the city is valued at $122 million annually.

Arborist and allergy sufferer Glaeser believes that a few weeks of discomfort during the spring are worth the benefits of having trees in the city, and would not imagine New York without them.

“We obtain so much more benefits and services from trees,” he says.

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