Dr. Leonard Bielory, an allergist in New Jersey, was startled by the size of the giant ragweed plants he saw in a field while hiking last week on the Appalachian Trail near the Delaware River. He said some were eight or nine feet high, or two to three feet taller than those he saw there late last summer. Some plants of another species, short ragweed, ranged up to six feet, nearly twice the height of last year's, he said.
"They were very green and lush, with thick stems," recalled Dr. Bielory, director of the Asthma and Allergy Research Center at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark. "It took some muscle to pull them out."
That is sorry news for hay fever sufferers.
Dr. Bielory and other allergists who take daily counts of ragweed pollen for the National Allergy Bureau in Milwaukee say this summer's ragweed crop is a little behind schedule, but heartier than usual, in the metropolitan region. They predict that pollen will be more bountiful and will persist beyond the usual peak dispersal period of mid-August to mid-September.
"It'll be delayed, powerful and prolonged, not delayed and puny," said Dr. Clifford W. Bassett, an allergist at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn. "People are going to continue suffering for the next four to five weeks."
Said Dr. Bielory: "It's a late start. Misery is going to be longer."
Dr. Bielory said the persistent rain in late spring and early summer was to blame for the bumper crop. The moisture helped growth, he said, and also delayed the plants' maturation and blossoming and the customary beginning of their release of pollen around Aug. 15.
Hay fever sufferers who thought they had been spared this summer's agony of itchy and irritated eyes, bouts of sneezing and coughing and runny or stuffy noses have been tricked by nature, Dr. Bielory said. The season is under way now and will likely persist until early October, with daily counts of ragweed pollen ranging from moderate (10 to 49 grains of pollen per cubic meter of air) to high (50 to 499 grains per cubic meter), he said.
According to the National Allergy Bureau, moderate levels produce allergic symptoms in many individuals who are sensitive to ragweed pollen. At high levels, "most individuals with any sensitivity" to the pollen will have symptoms.
Dr. Bielory said he expected most daily levels to fluctuate between 10 and 30 for the rest of September. He said the count could jump to between 70 and 110 on sunny and windy days with temperatures in the 90's, which is ideal weather for dispersal. The count will be lower on cool and overcast days and minimal on rainy days because moisture washes the pollen from the air, Dr. Bielory and Dr. Bassett said.
Yesterday's levels were 16 at Long Island College Hospital and 17 at the University of Medicine and Dentistry, officials said.
In some parts of upstate New York, the hay fever season started earlier than usual and pollen counts have been higher than those in and near New York City.
"Ragweed has just been thriving; it's grown remarkably well," said Dr. David Shulan, an allergist in Albany whose staff takes daily pollen counts for the National Allergy Bureau. "This has been a very bad year for ragweed, at least here." Albany's count yesterday was 19, down from 64 on Monday, Dr. Shulan said. He said that he started keeping records of daily pollen counts in Albany in 1988 and that this year's total so far is the highest since the record year of 1996.
"The weather looks nice and dry and beautiful for the foreseeable future, so we might set a record," Dr. Shulan said.
Allergists offered a variety of tips on reducing exposure to pollen during peak dispersal seasons. They included keeping home and car windows closed and using air conditioners; avoiding outdoor exercise during the day, when levels are highest; showering before bedtime and keeping clothing worn outdoors during the day away from the bedroom to avoid taking pollen into it; and brushing or wiping the fur of pets that have been outdoors before taking them indoors.