Something's In The Air

Something’s In The Air
By Paula Voorhees
Photography by Kris Hanning  

The story goes like this: earlier this century doctors in the East wrote two words on their prescription pad for clients suffering from allergies and asthma — “Go West.” Television ads blared “Take your allergies to Arizona.” The heat was dry; the air clear and there was very little pollen-bearing vegetation.

Thousands of sufferers took that advice and moved to Arizona. But apparently they forgot that pollen was not their friend. They tended to turn their lawns into oasises of non-native ornamental grasses, plants and lots and lots of mulberry and olive trees because they thrive in a hot, dry climate. Unfortunately, mulberry trees, olive trees, certain flowering plants and Bermuda grasses fill the skies in Tucson and other Arizona cities with their allergens during spring and fall.

As a result of these attempts to enhance the desert paradise, the Grand Canyon State is now overgrown with full-blown allergy centers. Arizona, in fact, has twice the national average of respiratory allergies.

New Findings at The Arizona Respiratory Center at the University of Arizona

As Wordsworth put it: “The Child is Father to the Man.”

But what happens to us early on not only helps to determine our outlook and attitudes, it shapes our bodies, too.

A group of researchers at The Arizona Respiratory Center at the University of Arizona is delving into the question of whether there are certain factors that appear in early childhood that have an impact on later lung development.

Spearheaded by Stefano Guerra. M.D., Ph.D., and Fernando Martinez, M.D., et al., the study holds great promise for better understanding how allergies and asthma develop, and new ways of treating and even preventing them.

Michael Daines, M.D., has worked with patients in the study and sums up the findings. “It’s long term — 20 years — and the power of that is you can study things that happen in childhood and then look at the adults and see how those early changes can impact the adult lung. For example, they examined early childhood growth — normal vs. poor weight gain — and wheezing, and they’ve seen both factors associate very strongly with late lung development in children and adults up to age 20. In other words, the changes that we have in our lungs and growth early on have a direct impact on what our lung development is long term.”

One of the categories being researched revolves around how allergens and asthma are related. “There really are only a small subset of things that cause allergies that are also associated with asthma and those things are all closely related,” notes Dr. Daines. “Mostly it’s insect-derived, so house dust mite allergens and cockroach allergens, as well as mold allergens. We’re looking at how things that cause allergies and those that cause asthma are different at a molecular level, and then how the immune responses are different to the two, so we can sort out the pathways that are involved in the development of asthma in children.”

The goal is to figure out a way to block asthma from developing early on, or produce new treatments for adults who are living with it. “Our treatment for asthma hasn’t changed much in 15 or 20 years. We’re still using inhaled steroids and inhaled bronchial dilators as the main therapy for 90 percent of the kids with asthma. If we can develop new treatments based on these new pathways we could potentially have something else to offer.”

Down the line, the researchers hope to sort out the long-suspected genetic component for allergies and asthma as a key to developing preventives and treatments.


The Most Common Allergens Triggering Allergy and Asthma Attacks in Tucson

Dust Mites

Feed on dead skin flakes from warm-blooded creatures, thrive in dark, warm, humid environments and have eight legs. Sound like creatures from a 1950’s horror movie? Unfortunately, they’re real and live in common house dust.

Dust mites are tiny microscopic spider relatives that thrive in common house dust and eat up to 1.5 grams of skin flakes per day. A huge amount for a microscopic entity and thus they produce a huge amount of fecal matter. That and their decaying bodies are the most prevalent form of house dust allergens. Eighty percent of people with allergies test positive for sensitivity to the dust mite allergen. The mites love mattresses, pillows, box springs, rugs, towels, upholstered furniture, drapes and stuffed toys.

And you don’t have to ever feel alone at night again because the average bed contains two million dust mites!

“Unfortunately, dust mites regenerate really fast,” says Bob Hartley, who has worked for Truly Nolan Pest Control for 42 years.

It is almost impossible to eradicate dust mites because the female lays up to 50 eggs every three weeks.

“The best way to control them,” says Hartley, “is to make the environment unsuitable for them. Options for that are to use mattress covers, vacuum consistently and after each use, empty the vacuum outside and place contents into a sealed container. Also, wash bed linens at least once a week. The mites need a food source and the less dead skin flakes there are to eat, the less hospitable the environment is for them.”

“Actually a lot of pest problems can be handled by changing the environment and just plain old cleanliness,” says Michelle Nolan Senner, director of marketing and advertising and granddaughter of the founder of Truly Nolan. “Many homes now have a central vacuum system and people don’t realize its canister needs to be cleaned out or it becomes a breeding ground.”

Hartley agrees. “I’ve taken to brushing my dogs on their walk in the morning out in the desert. That way, their hair and dead skin flakes don’t add to the dust in my home.”

Other components of household dust besides dust mites include animal dander, insect fragments, fibers, wood and paper particles, hair and skin flakes, tobacco ash, particles of salt, sugar, spices and minerals, plant pollen and fungal spores, all of which are potential allergens.

If you have allergy symptoms then you may be experiencing allergens inhaled from house dust:

• Symptoms appear as a result of dusting, making beds, changing blankets and bed linens

• Symptoms occur year-round rather than seasonally

• Symptoms are worse when indoors

• Symptoms are worse when in bed in the morning


Although most Arizonans appreciate a good rain, many with allergies and asthma suffer from its after effects.

“Ragweed and Bermuda grass are the biggest pollen producers,” says Dr. Mark Sneller, a nationally renowned indoor air expert and founder of Aero-Allergen Research, a company that does air quality tests in homes and businesses. “When there’s a good rain, there’s a large amount of pollen that follows.”

Pollens are tiny cells needed to fertilize plants. Pollens from plants with colorful flowers, like roses, usually do not cause allergies. These plants rely on insects to transport the pollen for fertilization. But many plants have flowers that produce light, dry pollens that are spread easily by wind. These culprits cause the symptoms most of us are all-too familiar with.

Bermuda Grass

According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI), Bermuda grass releases pollens throughout the year in warmer climates such as Tucson.

“In 1984 an ordinance was passed in Tucson that put restrictions on planting new mulberry and olive trees, and ordered domestic Bermuda grass to be cut before it could pollinate,” says Dr. Sneller. “Citations were handed out to offenders, but the ordinance is no longer enforced.”

Fewer Tucsonans are planting lawns with Bermuda grass, but it still is considered one of the most significant allergy triggers in Arizona.


Ragweed runs a close second to Bermuda grass as a significant allergy trigger.

If plants were animals, ragweed would be a very stubborn donkey.   It can grow anywhere and is extremely hard to eradicate. It commonly grows in fields and vacant lots. It produces one billion pollen grains per average season. And don’t think you can take a cruise to escape it during allergy season.  Ragweed pollen, one of the most significant causes of fall allergy symptoms, has been found 400 miles out to sea!

The AAAAI also warns that in addition to sneezing and itchy, watery eyes, ragweed allergies also can cause symptoms of oral allergy syndrome (OAS). Oral allergy syndrome causes people with seasonal allergies to experience a worsening of allergy symptoms after consuming fresh fruits or vegetables. Itchiness of the mouth and throat with mild swelling are common symptoms.

Individuals with ragweed allergies might want to avoid these foods during allergy season:

• Banana

• Cucumber

• Melon

• Zucchini

• Sunflower seeds

• Chamomile tea

• Echinacea


Molds are some of the oldest and most common organisms on the planet, and their link to respiratory symptoms has been suspected as far back as the 1700s.

Molds are tiny fungi related to mushrooms but without stems, roots or leaves. Their spores float in the air like pollen. Mold counts are usually much higher than pollen counts. Outdoor mold spores begin to increase as temperatures rise in the spring and reach their peak in July in warmer states and October in the colder states. Because mold also grows indoors it is possible to be exposed to mold spores year-round.

“The most common allergenic mold, Alternaria, thrives on decaying plant material,” says Dr. Sneller.

But the indoor mold, Aspergillus, found in crawl spaces of homes, agricultural areas and sometimes growing outside, is especially of interest to the medical world. It has been associated with a variety of allergic respiratory diseases including allergic asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis (farmer’s lung) and allergic bronchopulmonary aspergillosis.

Common Symptoms of Mold Exposure

Allergy and irritation are the most common symptoms of mold exposure. Although symptoms will vary, the most common symptoms seen in people exposed to mold indoors include:

• Nasal and sinus congestion

• Eye irritation, such as itchy, red, watery eyes

• Respiratory problems, such as wheezing and difficulty breathing

• Cough

• Throat irritation

• Skin irritation, such as a rash

• Headache


Suggestions for Reducing Allergy/Asthma Attacks

In the Bedroom:

According to Environmental Protection Agency studies, indoor air can contain as much as 70 times the pollution of outdoor air.  The American Lung Association says that most people spend 90 percent of their time indoors and 60 percent of that in their homes and a third of that time in their bedrooms.

• Encase pillows, mattresses and box springs in allergen-impermeable casings

• Position beds away from floors

• Wash all bed linens in hot water (130 degrees or more)

• Avoid down-filled (feather) comforters and pillows

• Keep humidity in bedroom below 50 percent

• Use washable curtains or window shades

• Vacuum thoroughly at least once a week

• Cover any heating vents with special vent filters

• Use furniture made of wood or a wipeable material rather than upholstered

In the Home:

• Use HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arresters) air cleaners

• Install hardwood or tile floors rather than carpet

• Bathe pets regularly

• Ventilate bathroom

• Clean any visible mold from the walls, floors and ceiling using non-chlorine bleach

• Make sure the clothes dryer vents to the outside

• Clean kitchen counters and commonly handled appliances

• Remove shoes outside and leave outside because they track in allergens

• Don’t hang clothes outside (use clothes dryer)

• Clean and replace air conditioner filters regularly


• Keep track of pollen counts

• Avoid intense outdoor activities during early morning and late afternoon hours (pollen counts are highest)

• Keep windows closed

• Wash hair before going to bed to avoid getting pollen on your pillow