Wheezing While You Work

THE REAL DIRT

June 26, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Angelo is puttering around in his yard. At least I think it is Angelo. It's hard to identify your next-door neighbor when he looks like he's dressed for World War III.

Angelo is wearing goggles, gloves, boots and a dust mask. His mission: to mow the lawn.

His outfit suggests a more odious task. Sometimes I wonder if he's battling crab grass or mustard gas.

Angelo's adversary is nature. Plants and trees that make him sneeze and wheeze. Pollens and molds that cause ills untold.

He's not alone. Nearly 15 million Americans suffer from seasonal hay fever and related allergies. But for those like Angelo, who love to garden, the malady is especially cruel.

It means he is allergic to his favorite pastime.

If he so much as winks at certain plants, his nose explodes. If he stands beneath certain trees, his eyes begin to itch and water. Place him beside a budding oak and he reacts like a weeping willow. Poor Angelo. It's enough to make a grown man cry.

A prolonged sneezing attack can sideline him for hours, says Angelo, who's prone to five-minute outbursts while turning the soil or trimming the grass. These fits can be embarrassing . . . and exhausting.

"Everyone in the neighborhood can hear me," he says. "After sneezing, I'm too beat to do anything but lie down.

"It's not an easy way to live."

Yet Angelo recoils at the thought of giving up gardening.

"Are you crazy?" he says. "What else would I do?"

Instead, like a growing number of red-nosed gardeners, he is fighting back, taking precautions to minimize his discomfort while working outdoors -- even if it includes dressing up in spooky garb. The goggles and mask frightened one youngster, who failed to recognize the next-door neighbor who was trimming his shrubs.

Proper clothing is a must for beleaguered gardeners, says Angelo, who wears long-sleeved shirts and jeans, even on sultry days. Garden gloves and hats are standard garb. The less

contact between flesh and flora, the better, he says: "If I cover up, I'm usually OK."

Angelo will take antihistamines, but only as a last resort. Medication usually makes him too drowsy to garden.

Angelo's nose woes are neither rare nor unavoidable, say allergists, who believe homeowners don't realize how many villains are lurking in their lawns.

"There are 250,000 types of molds living in the soil which you bring right up to your face when you start digging a garden," says Dr. Linda Ford, an allergist and spokeswoman for the American Lung Association.

Pollens of certain weeds, such as pigweed and Russian thistle, can have devastating and far-flung effects on some people, she says. Ragweed pollen carried by the wind can cause havoc a good 50 miles from the plant.

Mowing is probably the worst exercise for hay fever victims, says Ford. "When you mow, you're stirring up an allergy stew. Everything from grass pollen to mold spores to insect parts comes up and hits you in the face."

Most gardeners just sniffle and cough and weather the storm.

"A lot of people who get the itchy nose and watery eyes do nothing about it," says Dr. Ford. "These people just 'tough it out.' We call them the silent sufferers."

The American Lung Association offers these tips to gardeners beset by allergies:

* While doing yard chores, wear a particle mask, an inexpensive air filter available at hardware stores.

* Plan gardening activities for midday or evening, when pollen counts are lowest. Avoid working on windy days.

* Water the soil routinely to minimize clouds of mold and dust.

* Mulch plants with sheets of black plastic, which traps harmful soil-borne organisms beneath it. The plastic is sold in most garden centers.

* Cultivate allergy-free plants, shrubs and trees, such as poppies, peonies and pansies; boxwood, pyracantha and viburnum; and dogwoods, red buds and magnolias. Steer clear of trees that pack a potent pollen punch, including maples, oaks and red cedars.

* Wash face, hands and hair after working outside. Pollens and other microscopic debris also cling to clothing, which should be changed immediately.

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