Noses know: Washington's pollen count this spring reached its highest level in a decade.
"I'm seeing a lot of people who are pretty miserable," said Dr. John Zucker, an allergist who conducts the pollen count for Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co.'s daily taped weather message, part of the National Weather Service report.
Yesterday morning, Zucker recorded a tree pollen count of 244, following the National Capital Area Lung Associations and D.C. Medical Society's record count Friday of 280.
To allergy sufferers -- estimated by specialists at 20 percent of the population -- the lower count makes no difference. "Anything above 10 [pollen count] is a problem," said Zucker.
Washington area trees, particularly oaks, at this time of year emit trillions of microscopic reproductive particles into the air, clogging sinuses, irritating eyes and leaving unsightly residue on vehicles.
Experts say the pollen count has been unusually high for the past three years as rainfall in March and April and dry, warm, breezy weather in May have encouraged plant growth and pollination.
"If you have bright, sunny, windy days, this is the ideal situation for dispersing pollen," according to Dr. Yuill Black, a Washington allergist. "We've had these factors for the last few years."
This spring, aggravated sufferers and car owners have gone wheezing and complaining to doctors, pharmacists and carwashes for relief.
At Mr. Wash carwash at 1313 13th St. in Northwest Washington, pollen problems were a boost to business. In the past week, the number of customers has doubled, said cashier Martha Leigh, an 18-year veteran of the carwash business.
"The pollen has a lot to do with it," she said. "It leaves a haze like you haven't dusted for a couple of days. People are complaining about that. They're coming in here to get it off."
The amount of tree pollen in the air is probably at its peak, according to medical specialists, who say the wheezing, headaches and running eyes and noses should continue for another 10 days if a good rain does not cleanse the air before then. The National Weather Service yesterday predicted only a 20 percent chance of a thunderstorm this afternoon and projected partly cloudy conditions, but no rain, through the rest of the week. The high temperature yesterday was 86, recorded at National Airport.
Doctors at the Kaiser Permanente Health Care Program in Falls Church have been busy with telephone calls and emergency visits from people with trouble breathing and asthma attacks, according to spokeswoman Mindy Bailin.
Most are suffering from what Black calls "seasonal allergic rhinitis," the proper term for the misnomer hay fever. "It's like having a bad cold for several weeks to two months," he said. Those who suffer from it are cautioned to avoid outdoor activities between 6 and 9 a.m., when the concentration of pollen is at its highest, according to Black.
Black counts the pollen for the lung associations and medical society from the roof of his office at 19th and K streets in Northwest. Yesterday, he recorded a tree pollen count of 70, which is still something to sneeze at but well below the 280 he recorded for a 24-hour period that ended Friday. That figure was the highest in the 10 years the organizations have kept records for the area.
Zucker's count yesterday of 244 was taken from the roof of his office in Upper Marlboro.
Both doctors explain the disparity in yesterday's counts by acknowledging the variableness of the process, which involves counting under a microscope the number of pollen particles collected on one square centimeter of a slide placed outdoors for 24 hours.
The count is affected greatly by location and weather conditions such as temperature and winds.
"Individuals can be exposed to high or low levels [of pollen] depending on where they are," according to Theresa Brett, spokeswoman for the lung associations, an organization that represents groups in the District, Maryland and Northern Virginia.
As for yesterday, Zucker said, "You're a little bit worse off in the suburbs."
Allergy season comes three times a year in Washington, with tree pollen creating misery in March through early May, according to the lung associations.
For the rest of the month, grass pollen, which is less profuse than tree pollen, will be the environmental villian, experts say. Then there is ragweed season, beginning in August.