Canberra grass pollen building at record levels - "Godzilla Hay Fever" on it's way?

Canberra trending towards a "Godzilla" Hay Fever season!

The levels of grass pollen in Canberras atmosphere have been building over the last 3 weeks and they are now at record levels compared to previous years (2007-2009 and 2014). The cummulative grass pollen concentration has been steadily increasing and is now at least 2x above what was recorded last year. It is also only a week before the aninversary of the record day for emergency addmisions for chronic asthma at Canberra Hospital on the 27th October 2014. This day coincided with high grass pollen counts, a thunderstorm and a weekend (a Sunday when many people were outside). This combination of circumstances led to a record number of people presenting to th emergency department in one day all with serious asthma-related symptoms.

This years grass pollen count is trending towards much greater levels than previous recorded and, based on our previous records, we are rapidly approaching the point when there will be an accelerated production of grass pollen in the ACT and surround regions. The graph below depicts these changes in accumulation of grass pollen over previous pollen seasons. Its clearly shows that by late October and through November we should expect an accelaration in grass pollen production, due to widespread flowering and pollen production of key allergic rhinitis-related grasses like Rye Grass.

The data suggests that we should be preparing for a singificant rise in grass pollen over the next few days and if this rise coincides with thunderstorms, strong northwesterly winds and a weekend, then those who suffer from hay fever should prepare for "Godzilla-like" Hay Fever conditions. People who suffer from asthma-related conditions should take precautions, such as stay inside and avoid exposure to extreme levels of grass pollen.

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Why is Canberra the Hay Fever Capital of Australia?

Ever wondered why Canberra is the hay fever capital of Australia? Is it related to the population make up, climate or geography? According to national health surveys, allergic rhinitis rates are the highest in the ACT (Canberra), where 1 in 5 people reported suffering from long-term allergic rhinitis, followed closely by Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia. The lowest rates occur in Queensland and New South Wales, which is almost half that of Canberra.

Why is this the case? One possibility is that there are simply more people in Canberra who are susceptible to allergic rhinitis. However, there is no evidence that the population of Canberra differs significantly in terms of demographic indicators, such as birthplace or age, from other regions in Australia.

Here I explore the possibility that at least part of the explanation might lie in the diversity of plants producing allergy-related pollen. The Atlas of Living Australia is an amazing online database of the diversity and distribution of plants found across Australia. It also has useful analytical tools that help you map the occurrence of any species you might be interested in. By compiling a list of the main allergy-related introduced tree and herb species* found in Australia I used the ALA to map their spatial diversity and to see where the species richness hotspots occur.

The map below reveals some interesting patterns and hotspots of allergy-related species richness across Australia. First of all it is clear that the capital cities of the southern states hold the greatest number of allergy-related plant species, reflecting the long held habit of city councils to plant many exotic tree species into our urban landscapes.

Secondly, high species richness extends to a number of rural towns and agricultural regions, where tree planting, improved pastures and weed growth combine to increase the number of allergy-related species in these areas (e.g. Swan Coastal Plain, Yorke Peninsula, Naracoorte Coastal Plain, Victorian Midlands, Tasmanian Midlands, New England Tableland, Atherton Tableland).

Finally, a comparison between health survey data and plant diversity reveals a strong correspondence between hotspots in allergic rhinitis and allergy-related species richness.  Canberra comes out on top in both categories, closely followed by Melbourne and Adelaide as cities where there are not only high rates of allergic rhinitis, but also where you are most likely to encounter plants with the potential to trigger allergic rhinitis (see species richness graph).

The geography and climate of Canberra has a lot to do with its status as the nations number one hotspot for hay fever. Its land-locked location in the heart of a rich agricultural region, plus a climate and urban landscaping history that supports plants from both cool and warm temperate origins, means that there is little chance for relief during the months when allergy-related plants produce pollen. Based on historic counts of airborne pollen in the ACT, the season for allergy-related pollen can begin as early as August (dominated mostly by Pine, Birch and Cypress), peaking in October to November (dominated by the grasses) and extending into January and February (including warm climate grasses and Plantain).

As the climate warms and the population grows in Canberra (and other regional hotspots) it will be important for allergic rhinitis sufferers, health experts and city landscape planners to be aware of the potential impact that environmental change can have on population health. Education and awareness about the distribution and impact of allergy related plants on population health and productivity will help to better guide our daily decisions as we live in and seek to create desirable urban and rural landscapes. 

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* Analysis list (not exhaustive) includes: Pinus sp. (Pine tree), Cupressus sp. (Cypress Pine), Populus sp., (Poplar), Salix sp. (Willow), Platanus sp. (Plane tree), Acer sp. (Maple tree), Betula sp. (Birch), Ulmus sp. (Elm), Quercus sp. (Oak), Alnus sp. (Alder), Fraxinus sp. (Ash tree), Ligustrum lucidum (Privet), Olea europaea (Olive tree), Paspalum notatum (Bahia grass), Cynodon dactylon (Bermuda grass), Sorghum halepense (Aleppo grass), Lolium perenne (Rye grass), Poa pratensis (English Meadow grass), Anthoxanthum odoratum (Scented Vernal grass), Dactylis glomerata (Cock’s-foot grass), Phleum pretense (Timothy grass), Echium plantagineum (Paterson’s Curse), Plantago lanceolata (Plantain)

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Learn more about pollen - Willows and Poplar Trees

Willows and Poplar trees (Species, Salix sp. and Populus sp.; Family, Salicaceae)

Willows and Poplar trees belong to the same family Salicaceae and have been widely planted throughout the ACT, and in many cases have become weeds along waterways. They are deciduous trees and are found in rural and urban areas across SE Australia and SW Western Australia.

The trees produce flowers or catkins (slim, cylindrical flower cluster) during the months of September to October. If pollinated, these flower clusters produce lots of fluffy seeds that can be dispersed long distances by the wind. This “fluff” can be seen in abundance in and around Canberra from October to November and has often been blamed directly for causing an allergic reaction in some people. This is unlikely to be the case as the fluff is large in size (difficult to inhale) and there are many other allergenic pollen types present in the atmosphere at the same time as the “fluff” is present. The pollen from Salix sp. and Populus sp. does produce an allergic reaction in some people, and has been widely reported as a cause of hay fever in Europe and in North America.

Pollen is produced as early as late August through to October for Willow and Poplar tree species.

Distribution of Poplar Trees (left) and Willows (right) (Atlas of Living Australia occurrence map)

 

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