1 Feb 2024

Pollen, asthma and allergies

From Our Changing World, 5:00 am on 1 February 2024
A woman with long dark hair tied back wearing a tank top, long pants and sneakers adjusts a green metal contraption sitting on concrete blocks atop a rooftop with the Sky Tower and Auckland skyline in the background. The sky is cloudy and overcast.

Master's student Natasha Ngadi checks the pollen trap on the rooftop of the Auckland Museum. Photo: Justin Gregory / RNZ

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The view is what you notice first. 

It’s takes time to get up to the roof of the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tamaki Paenga Hera but once you’re there, it’s worth it. A 360-degree turn takes in all the major sights of central Auckland. If you weren’t looking for it, you might not notice a green, medium-sized metal device placed just so to catch the breeze. This device, a clockwork volumetric spore trap, is the key to learning more about pollen levels in this country – a major cause of asthma and hay fever. 

New Zealand’s first pollen trap in 35 years 

Asthma affects approximately one in eight adults and one in five children in New Zealand, with rates higher than those in Australia or the UK. Yet, for the past three decades, the country has operated without a single pollen trap – until now. 

Associate professors Stuti Misra and Amy Chan from the University of Auckland co-lead a team operating the country’s first pollen trap in 35 years. Since July 2023, the team has been trapping pollen and spores, identifying and counting them. Their mission is to update the data on New Zealand's pollen and understand its correlation with the country's soaring asthma and allergy rates. 

An image of a monitor screen showing a magnified image of a large pink blob with a dark stem.

A pollen sample viewed under the microscope. Photo: Justin Gregory / RNZ

Climate change sends pollen rates soaring 

Their research is funded for just a year, but good data is already emerging about seasonal variations in pollen. The team already know the number of high pollen count days has increased by 75 percent over the last 30 years, likely due to climate change. This increase not only signifies an earlier onset of the grass season but also a higher volume of pollen in the air – posing a greater threat to those with respiratory issues. 

Amy is running a related clinical trial, developing real-time prediction tools and smart devices to avoid asthma attacks. Using individualised data like sleep patterns, breathing rate, weather information, medication use and weather, she hopes to determine what information can most accurately predict an attack and develop tools to warn sufferers. 

A woman with blonde hair tied back wearing glasses and a lab coat peers into a microscope at a lab bench.

Doctoral candidate Laura McDonald counting pollen samples. Photo: Justin Gregory / RNZ

Listen to the episode to learn more about why pollen levels are rising, what technology is emerging to measure those levels and how smart phones and watches could be key to managing and preventing asthma attacks. 

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