Sunday, March 09, 2008

Something in the Air

The weather in Tokyo is turning warmer, the plum trees are in blossom and the waiting rooms in clinics that specialize in nose and eye problems are filling up with people suffering from runny noses, sneezing and bloodshot eyes.

Tokyo is known for many things: the Imperial Palace gardens, cherry trees in the springtime, super crowded commuter trains. But it has a more dubious distinction. It is also the world capital for allergies, especially for hay fever, known to the Japanese as pollen sickness.

Of course this is no secret to the bulk of the people living here, especially the estimated six or seven million who are prone to pollen allergies (based on general rule that 15- 20 percent of the Japanese population suffers from hay fever).

Tokyoites know that by the time the plum trees start to blossom in early March it is time to stock up on antihistamine tablets, eye drops, herbal medicines and face masks. The most susceptible to pollen may avail themselves of allergy shots and other more exotic remedies.

One might wonder whey an affliction usually associated with rural areas should affect the world’s largest urban conglomeration. The answer goes back to the years just before and just after the end of World War II. In those hardscrabble years, people denuded the forests of the nearby mountains to make charcoal to keep warm and cook food.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Japanese government undertook a successful reforestation program, planting millions of cedar trees, a cheap, fast-growing native tree and a prodigious pollen producer. Unlike in the U.S, where ragweed is the main pollen source, cedar and cypress trees cause the most suffering in Japan.

It was expected that these trees would be cut to produce timber, but Japan has found it more economical to import lumber from the U.S. and Canada, so they have been left standing. Now 40 to 50 years of age, they have reached their pollen producing peak, pumping literally tons of the irritant into the atmosphere.

The pollen seasons peaks in late February, but just as it dies down, the pollination of the cypress trees begins to kick in. So for those who suffer from both pollens, there is an unbroken period of sneezing and sniffling through the end of April.

Ironically, it is Tokyo’s urban nature that compounds the problem, since the pollen particles fall on asphalt pavements or on the roofs of buildings rather than being absorbed in the soil. Here they are picked up and blown around in little invisible eddies and whirlwinds.

The inexorable march of suburbia to the west has eliminated many of the farms and windbreaks that had once helped keep much of the pollen from reaching the city. But now the urban area of Tokyo extends to the very foothills of the mountains.

The forest agency, which had earlier planted 4.5 million hectares of cedar trees, now proposes to cut them down and reseed the areas with different broadleaf trees that produce less pollen. The goal is to halve the number of cedar trees by 2017.

Much of the impetus for this expensive program comes from Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara who famously suffered a bad bout of hay fever in 2005, a particularly bad year when the pollen count soared some 4,000 percent over the previous year.

Hay fever is thought to have a measurable impact on Japan’s economy, both in a negative and a positive way. The Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Research Institute estimates that the economy lost about $3 billion due to absenteeism in the memorable hay fever year of 2005. On the other hand, Dai-Ichi Life also estimates that Japanese spend more than $6 billion a year on hay fever prevention products, such as eye drops and face masks.

In recent years the hay fever season has merged with the yellow dust peril to aggravate the woes of allergy sufferers. Yellow dust is the term Japanese use for dust that originates in China’s Inner Mongolia province and other parts of Central Asia and is blown east in prevailing winds.

When it settles, cities are bathed in a kind of yellow haze, similar to smog, and the dust particles get into everything. Television stations weather reports plot the approaching dust and recommend that people refrain from hanging washed clothes out of doors. In more extreme cases, the yellow dust can cut visibility to the point where airports close temporarily.

This being Japan, various exotic remedies have been proposed over the years to lessen the burden. One pharmaceutical company touts its olive leaf extraction product as a way alleviating hay fever symptoms without causing side effects such as drowsiness.

An institute associated with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries touts a new kind of genetically engineered rice the eating of which may produce an immune tolerance. The rice is said to produce an amino acid that mimics the cedar pollen and helps produce immunities.
However, the Health Labor and Welfare Ministry has been slow to classify the engineered rice as a safe food, disappointing many sufferer who had hoped it would be available from this year’s harvest.

This time of year newspapers carry stories filled with tips on how to prevent or at least alleviate the symptoms of hay fever. They all seem to boil down to the same piece of advice: find and wear a good face mask or stay indoors.


Post a Comment

<< Home