Mailman Doctoral Student to Spring: Achoo!

April 14, 2014

Spring has finally sprung, and with it comes swollen eyes, sniffley noses, and a whole lot of sneezing. Pollen and its wide-reaching health implications are the primary area of study for Environmental Health Sciences doctoral student Kate Weinberger. As she readies to defend her dissertation on the health risks of pollen,Transmission sat down with Weinberger to get the lowdown on what to expect this allergy season.

What types of pollen typically cause seasonal allergies?

Tree, grass, and weed pollen all trigger allergies, but we see different allergens at different times of the year. Tree pollen picks up from March through May, grass pollen starts in the summer, and then we see a lot of ragweed pollen in the fall.  

A few sniffles here and there doesn’t sound like a big deal. Is there more to it?

Asthma is a more serious health concern, and it’s incredibly prevalent here in New York City. My dissertation research is also looking at how daily concentrations of allergenic pollen affect emergency room visits for asthma in New York City neighborhoods. There’s a clear spike in asthma emergency room visits in late April and early May for children aged 5 to 17. 
Trees are thought of as bringing clean air and health to the city. Not so?

New York City is in the middle of a big urban tree-planting campaign, which is expected to have ecological, social, and public health benefits. But tree pollen is an important trigger of allergy and asthma symptoms, so all these trees may also have negative health consequences. Professor Gina Lovasi recently conducted a study that found high tree-canopy density near a child’s prenatal address increased the risk of the child developing allergic sensitization to tree pollen. As part of my dissertation research, I’ve installed a network of 45 pollen monitors on light poles across the city to better understand the relationship between urban trees and allergic outcomes.

Does climate change have an affect on the pollen count?

Yes. A large body of research, much of it from Europe, suggests we’ll see both an earlier start and a later finish to the pollen season, as well as increased amount of pollen produced during the season. A longer and more severe season means more pollen exposure—which could lead to increases in the development and exacerbation of allergic disease.

What kinds of things can we do to be better prepared?

The city health department delivers yearly advisories to healthcare providers as a result of our study on pollen and emergency department visits. For individuals, I suggest checking the National Allergy Bureau website for actual pollen levels in our area. Weather websites tend to show pollen predictions rather than real-time data. Dr. Guy Robinson at Fordham runs a Twitter account that gives daily reports from our local pollen monitoring stations in midtown Manhattan and Armonk, New York.

What’s next for you?

I’m taking a postdoctoral position at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society where I’ll be working with epidemiology and atmospheric science faculty to look at vulnerability to extreme heat and storms. I believe that human health is a compelling reason for protecting the environment, and I’m hoping to continue that work.