August ushers into the Northeast its share of sneezes, wheezes and itchy eyes. Informal polls suggest things are worse this year. Empirical confirmation was provided last week by Dr. Edward Kent of South Burlington-based Timberlane Allergy and Asthma Research. In direct proportion to much of our suffering, Kent said, ragweed has flourished: Billions of its tiny pollen grains took to the wind two weeks ago — about a week earlier than usual. That premature abundance has "primed" the allergic response of vulnerable folk, making them increasingly sensitive to subsequent exposure, he said.
Moderate pollen levels, then, have boosted the indices of discomfort. Kent monitors airborne irritants and treats patients whose immune and respiratory systems rage into misguided overdrive at the slightest whiff of pollen, mold spores, dust mites, pet dander and the like. His lab's mold-spore and pollen counts routinely inform local weather reports and forecasts. Because the chief suspects are microscopic, Kent suggested a look at them through a microscope.
Lynne Moon, the clinical research supervisor at Timber Lane Allergy, introduced visitors to her latest batch of aerialists, captured and immobilized on needle-thin, silicone greased plastic rods. A mold spore (Alternaria) resembled a snowshoe track in pink-dyed snow. A cluster of six, globe-like plantain pollen grains decked the microscope slide like baby fruit. A snowshoe-shaped fungus spore (Alternaria) is visible under a microscope at Timberlane Allergy and Asthma Research in South Burlington. The common, airborne spore is among many that can trigger allergic reactions.
Ragweed pollen, too, proved beautiful: pitted, spiky balls — like an asteroid-slammed planet. Moon's counting procedure takes hours. At the end of a thrice-weekly session, she first translates her census into particles-per-square-meter of air; then into a nationally recognized, reader-friendly pollen index.
Rain tends to dampen airborne pollen counts, she said, but can nourish subsequent spikes in flowering. High pollen counts earlier this year — first from trees and then from early to midsummer grasses — seem to have cascaded into fall weeds' final, reproductive hurrah before frost.
Local trees' "flowering pulse" this year almost certainly stemmed from the stresses of 2012's hot, dry summer, and not the current year's weather, University of Vermont professor of plant biology David Barrington wrote in an email to the Burlington Free Press. The profusion of grass pollen has a more recent genesis, theorizes UVM Extension professor Sid Bosworth, whose fields of expertise include pasture, forage and weed management.
Weather conditions prevented timely mowing, he added. "With all the rain in June, we had a lot more land that was cut late this year; therefore, much more heading (flowering) and likely more pollen production," Bosworth wrote in response to an email query. "The rain may have also delayed mowing road sides as well allowing more plants to flower than normal."
This year's early bumper crops of pollen have multiplied the misery for humans unprepared (or untreated) for ragweed's August appearance, said Kent of Timberlane Allergy. "Those people are now more likely to be more reactive" to the region's collective and cumulative cocktail of allergens, he said.
Kent suggested we all might brace for earlier and extended sneeze seasons, given a warming climate. Fallout from that trend was documented in a study published in January 2011 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that allergy seasons in the northern U.S. and Canada had grown by two to four weeks from 1995 to 2009. Ann Hazelrigg, a plant pathologist at UVM, has first-hand evidence. "This is the first year, ever, that I've had fall allergies," Hazelrigg said. "It's been awful."
*Read the original article on www.burlingtonfreeexpress.com.