Pollen allergies afflict over 35 million Americans, and the economic cost of treating these allergies exceeds 12 billion dollars annually. The effects on human health are considerable because pollen exposure also increases the risk of developing asthma and can trigger fatal asthma attacks. Despite the importance of these public health concerns, urban areas are filled with plants that produce allergenic pollen, many of which are intentionally cultivated. This preventable situation is caused by a lack of knowledge concerning: 1) how pollen production and dispersal from individual plants leads to heterogeneity in airborne allergenic pollen concentrations on small spatial scales (e.g., tens to hundreds of meters); and 2) the extent to which exposure to allergenic pollen is responsible for triggering asthma attacks and other respiratory symptoms. This project’s objective is to quantify these processes and show how allergenic pollen producing plants affect human health.
Previous work on pollen I first became interested in pollen while working with a large daily pollen count data set from the American Academy of Allergies, Asthma, and Immunology. Although I first used this data set to answer questions about the impacts of frost on pollen production (you can see the archived presentation I gave on this topic at the 2010 Ecological Society of America conference), I soon became interested in the connections between land use, plant communities, and allergenic pollen. These interests first manifested in an educational outreach program with high school students in Detroit, and gradually turned into a full fledged project on ragweed ecology and pollen dispersal. Two papers from this project were recently published and have received considerable media coverage. The results from these projects have led me to my current research questions.