Digital revolution in pollen counting could save lives

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When you see the pollen count on the weather report, do you know it relies on a person manually gathering the information using 1940s technology?

Unlike other environmental monitoring equipment, our pollen-counting method has hardly advanced in the last 70 years.

This is despite 18 per cent of us in Australia and New Zealand suffering allergic rhinitis — what we commonly call “hay fever”.

For most sufferers, hay fever is inconvenient. But for some, pollen can be catastrophic.

Lolium perenne, commonly known as ryegrass, is one of around 800 grass species in Australia.

It was implicated in the devastating thunderstorm asthma event in Melbourne on November 21 last year, which killed nine people and left thousands more seriously ill.

Allergy is a young field of study.

New technologies and availability of large digital data sets should change our understanding of the disease over the next few years.

This is especially true for our interaction with pollen.

Yesterday’s technology

Pollen counting now relies on 1940s clockwork technology: large drums often located on university rooftops with other weather monitoring equipment.

Airborne pollen attaches to a sticky surface as a drum rotates over time, giving a time series of pollen concentrations in the air.

A technician must manually collect the sticky tape from the drum and count the pollen spores.

Grass pollen is counted as one entity; it is difficult to distinguish genus and species as they look very similar under the microscope.

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The Victorian Government has announced $15 million in funding to bring its pollen forecasting up to speed, hoping to better predict large-scale emergencies.

Thunderstorm asthma happens when high levels of grass pollens, which can travel hundreds of kilometres, combine with a certain kind of thunderstorm that shatters the pollen into tiny particles inhaled deep into the lungs.

In these situations, even people who don’t usually suffer from asthma can struggle to breathe and require emergency care.

This was the case last year, when the hospital system in Melbourne was overwhelmed by the unexpected event.

But a revolution in how we measure environmental DNA may help here.

New techniques

DNA can now be measured in environmental samples, including air, indicating which organisms are present.

This will allow researchers to quickly determine the species of grass and other proteins that may be driving allergies and asthma.

We are yet to realise the potential of digital mapping in pollen monitoring.

Cameras in fields can remotely observe the change in colour of grass, tracking its progress to when it releases pollen.

Satellites can also use infrared imagery to examine the colour of fields to assess grass location, density and pollen release.

Data offers hope

This DNA and satellite data could be fed with existing pollen counts into modelling programs to predict where pollen will end up, given the wind direction and speed.

This information would enable us to warn people with respiratory illnesses when to be prepared with medications and stay indoors.

My colleagues and I recently published a paper looking at the relationship between grass pollen in the atmosphere and hospital admissions in the UK.

Using data from seven years, we found a 4-5 day lag between exposure to pollen and arriving at the emergency department.

By bringing disparate data sets together, we are hoping we can help patients with allergic rhinitis and asthma to manage their diseases, and allow health systems to better plan and manage their resources.

To do this we need data on the genome of grasses, mapping of meteorological events, knowledge of peoples’ movements and behaviours, and health records.

All this is already possible, albeit often bound up in red tape.

Dr Nicholas Osborne is an epidemiologist and toxicologist at the UNSW School of Public Health and Community Medicine.

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