The director of a research agency that monitors air quality across Canada says there have “definitely” been higher levels of pollen in Hamilton’s air this spring compared to previous years.
Daniel Coates of Aerobiology Research Laboratories in Ottawa, which operates 30 monitoring stations, says Quebec and Ontario have been particularly hard hit by the yellow dust that blew off foliage in May.
“May, up to about last week, we had 11,381 grains per cubic metre as compared to last year, which was only 3,570. So that’s a big difference,” Coates said of Hamilton’s readings.
The 2021 count for the city is about three times last year’s measurements and almost double 2019 and 2018, which had readings of 7,785 and 7,632 grains per cubic metre, respectively.
“You definitely are seeing a lot more pollen in Hamilton, but it doesn’t necessarily ring true for the entire GTA Toronto itself,” Coates said.
“There’s a lot of birch, pine and oak pollen floating around in the GTA, but throughout this year in May only at around 8,000 grains compared to Hamilton, which is over 11,000.”
Montreal saw a comparable number to Hamilton in May, recording 10,407 grains per cubic metre, while Toronto hit 7,790, Ottawa 8,544 and Vancouver just 2,059.
Allergist, clinical immunologist and professor at McMaster University Dr. Susan Waserman says most areas of southern Ontario have had difficulty with birch pollen due to an early, warm spring.
However, Waserman suggests COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders may be playing a part as people head outdoors and become more aware of their allergy issues.
“We’ve been relatively isolated for the past few months and we see this no matter what the situation is, even outside of COVID, when people emerge from the winter and they start to circulate outdoors when pollen is there,” Waserman said.
Another variable is the types of antigens travelling through the air, as many individuals will react differently to particular pollens.
“There’s no question that people become allergic to specific things, and the only way to know specifically what you’re allergic to is to see an allergist to be tested,” said Waserman.
Coates says another factor is how much exposure an individual is having with any one given allergen as not everyone reacts to the same amount of pollen in the air.
“Allergies is a very personal thing,” Coates said.
“For yourself, maybe you wouldn’t react till it’s over 200, 300 or 500 grains per cubic metre, where somebody else could react at, like, 80 grains.”
For 2021, COVID-19 may become an additional complication to this year’s season as many symptoms are common to both afflictions, particularly coughs, sore throats, headaches, shortness of breath, congestion, sneezing and itchy, watery eyes.
“You won’t have a loss of smell or appetite or nausea, vomiting from a pollen allergy, as you do with COVID, though,” said Coates.
Allergy season and spread of the coronavirus are even a concern for the director of Hamilton’s emergency operations centre, Paul Johnson, who urged those encountering symptoms to consider a COVID-19 test since turnaround times are very fast these days.
“So a lot of people will say it’s just allergies, and the answer to that is, yeah, it may very well be,” said Johnson.
“But if it’s new and the symptoms just seem to be a little bit in line with what could also be COVID-19, please get that test. It’s a very simple way to rule it out.”
Waserman says most symptoms of allergies come from the chemical histamine, which is released by white blood cells into the bloodstream when the immune system is defending a potential allergen.
Histamine cells are present in the eyes, nose and lungs and once activated cause the body parts to become itchy and runny.
The McMaster doc says there are a lot of treatments along the lines of pills and even steroid sprays, which vary in cost and degree of effectiveness.
The most common treatment is antihistamines, which typically come in non-sedating versions that last 24 hours.
“And then, of course, we have shots and desensitization tablets now for trees and grass and ragweed,” said Waserman.