RALEIGH — Steven Walters gets phone calls this time of year from stuffy-nosed citizens looking for relief.”
And I say, ‘Well, I know why you’re calling,'” said Walters, a chemist charged with pollen monitoring at the air quality division of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality.
Whether it’s the crippling allergies or the yellowish-green mess that comes with the annual tree pollen dump each year, very few look forward to the pine, oak and maple reproductive particles that cover North Carolina each year. They coat cars, streets and — if you’re not quick enough in shutting your windows as soon as the weather warms enough to open them — your entire house.
“Typically in the spring we’ll see high tree counts, and then as the spring comes to an end and those leaves get fully developed on the trees those counts tend to come down,” Walters said. “They don’t disappear, but they’re not nearly as high as they normally are in the spring. We’ll see an increase in grass pollen in the summer, and an increase of weeds as well all the way up through fall. And fall is that dreaded ragweed season a lot of people suffer from.”
It’s a busy time of year for Walters as he collects the data and takes the occasional call from weary citizens.
“Basically what we’re doing is we’re not really looking for anything specific, we’re just collecting pollen and speciating it between trees, grasses and weeds, and providing that information to the public,” Walters said. “A lot of allergists also use that information to share with their patients to know when they should be using their medications to help alleviate their symptoms.”
The amount of pollen a region can get will vary from year to year, and as spring approaches this year it looks like prime conditions for a heavy pollen count.
“The quantities of pollen are really heavily driven on local weather conditions,” Walter said. “If we have mild winters, mild spring typically we’ll see higher counts in that case and they may last a little bit longer than usual.”
There are differences even from neighborhood to neighborhood, and of course the more trees you have around you, the more pollen you’re likely to see.
“There can be some vast differences even within your surrounding area,” Walters said. “If you’re a person who loves a lot of plants and has exotic plants, well your exposure is going to be mostly stuff that’s around you. So if your house is surrounded by pine or oak or maple, those are the ones that you’ll be most exposed to.”
While the ragweed season in the fall is usually worst on allergy sufferers, the tree pollen still impacts people on top of creating a mess.
“We have had some people calling and asking, ‘Well, should I go ahead and start cleaning? Is this pollen going to end?'” Walters said.
One would think rain would be the perfect antidote, but Walters said it might take a weeklong storm to lessen the amount of pollen the trees disseminate.
“I think rain is a double-edged sword,” Walters said. “Rain can wash off pollen that’s already been released out, but it gives those trees more energy to create more.”
Chances are even a perfectly executed rain dance isn’t going to spare us, so it’s best to just be resigned to a few weeks of having a layer of pollen everywhere.
“I think as a general rule, that’s pretty good advice,” Walters said. “Usually when the cool weather starts to end, it’s usually about that time.”