In the air

Editorial Notebook

May 27, 2006|By WILL ENGLUND

Hay fever is the best argument yet against the theory of evolution. More and more people are getting it, and what possible reproductive advantage could it confer? Do red eyes, a boggy nose, a scratchy voice and a head on the throbbing brink of explosion catch better mates? Not likely. Does hay fever do the plants that cause it any good? Even less likely.

On the other hand, it's also the best argument yet against intelligent design, because even a dope of a designer wouldn't have come up with something that causes so much dreary misery in so many people - tens of millions in America alone - for no discernible reason whatsoever. Unless, that is, the designer had a large financial stake in the pharmaceutical business - but how could all of creation have been predicated on such an obvious conflict of interest?

No, hay fever is one of those prickly conundrums that life is studded with. This spring, as even the most nasally insensitive must have realized, has been dramatically awful in Maryland and surrounding states. Both Baltimore and Washington have cracked the top 10 list of cities with a sneeze. It may be about to get worse.

Is this an epidemic that Americans have brought on themselves? The answer, according to doctors, is yes, but not quite the way you might think. It has little to do with sprawl or fashionable lifestyles or suburban landscaping, and if global warming is a culprit it's a pretty minor one.

The month of May was terrible in Maryland because the spring got started, and then faltered, and then hit its stride, and all the while the trees were going overboard with the pollen. They were feeling especially robust because of the mild winter - and yes, that might have some link to the greenhouse effect, says Dr. Peter Creticos, clinical director of the Johns Hopkins Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, but it's not the real problem.

The relative lack of rain this month - less than half what's normal in Baltimore - meant the pollen wasn't washed out of the air. The primary offender here was the oak tree - not exactly a faddish species, but also not exactly easy to avoid. When it was suggested to Dr. Martha White, of the private Institute for Asthma and Allergy in Wheaton, that it might be the best course to follow the sprawl, to get out of the older leafy neighborhoods and live among gawky ornamental saplings, she pointed out that on a windy day, oak pollen can be blown 100 miles.

Next up comes grass, which is just now pollinating. Does it make sense to tear up your lawn (and throw away your lawn mower)? Sadly, no. Not only is there a nation of other people's lawns out there emitting pollen, but there's still enough wild grass everywhere to make it not worth the effort. Plus ragweed follows in late summer, anyway.

So what have people done that contributes to the onward march of hay fever?

For one thing, air pollution can make some sufferers more susceptible to the allergens in the pollen. But a more basic issue goes back to infancy. For most of human history, people lived among animals, and when babies are exposed to the germs animals carry, their immune systems go into infection-fighting mode. But when babies don't run into germs, their immune systems can tip in another direction and go into an allergic mode instead. This means that your body spends most of the rest of its life on the lookout for things to get inflamed over. Gesundheit!

Hay fever, it turns out, is a global problem, and researchers at a Japanese hospital believe, in a very preliminary study first reported on the Discovery Channel, that they may have found a global source of relief. All it takes is 30 minutes a day with someone you're fond of, and a little mood music. Yes, a half-hour of kissing was found to reduce levels of histamine significantly, and histamine is what makes you miserable. That could be why spring is the season when a young man's (and a young woman's) fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love: It's the best treatment there is. It's enough to make you think natural selection might have something to do with it, after all.

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