Pollen counts soaring due to global warming, Japan’s forestation policy

February 26, 2013


Hay fever sufferers in Japan know all too well that pollen counts have been getting worse with each passing year.

Just how bad is now understood.

Experts say pollen counts have grown fivefold over the past three decades and that the primary culprits are an afforestation policy started to provide a steady supply of domestic lumber and global warming.

The sharp increase in pollen counts has pushed the number of hay-fever sufferers from around 20 percent of the 120 million population in 1998 to about 33 percent in 2008, according to one study.

This has created a huge market for medications and an array of related goods.

All signs point to an even worse situation this year because of fine wind-borne particles from China, where smog and air pollution is of major concern, doctors say.

A nonprofit group called association on information on pollen studied the amount of Japanese cedar and cypress pollen in the air at four sites--Funabashi in Chiba Prefecture; Niigata in Niigata Prefecture; Higashi-Osaka in Osaka Prefecture; and Fukuoka in Fukuoka Prefecture--over three decades.

The group, which is based in Narashino, Chiba Prefecture, calculated the average of each over 10-year cycles--from 1983 to 1992, from 1993 to 2002 and from 2003 to 2012--to grasp the bigger picture.

It acknowledged that pollen counts can vary significantly year by year due to weather conditions.

The study showed that in Funabashi, the figure for cedar pollen in the 2003-2012 period was 2.9 times greater than that in the 1983-1992 period.

The three other sites saw growth rates of 1.4 times to 2.7 times.

The study also showed that the rise in cypress pollen is alarming.

In Niigata, the figure grew 5.6 times, while the three other locations registered increases of between 1.8 times and 4.1 times.

Norio Sahashi, who heads the association's secretariat, blames the increase on global warming.

"The pollen count is on the rise because it has become easier for plants to grow," he said.

A United Nations study noted that pollen counts have risen in tandem with global warming.

In Japan, the government's afforestation policy is also a major factor, according to experts.

There are an estimated 4.6 billion cedar trees in Japan.

More than half of the trees in man-made forests covering 4.5 million hectares were planted between the early 1950s and early 1970s, according to the Forestry Agency.

Cedar pollen generally begins circulating in large amounts about 30 years after cedar seedlings are planted.

Heeding mounting complaints about pollen, the agency started a project in 1991 to develop cedar trees that disperse little pollen. It came up with 135 such varieties.

Although seedlings of these varieties are sold for around 100 yen ($1.07) each, almost the same as for regular cedar trees, they account for less than 10 percent of seedlings produced each year.

"We are accustomed to handling regular cedar trees," said a cedar forest owner, explaining the relative lack of no-pollen cedar trees.

To no one's surprise, the soaring pollen count has added to the misery and number of hay-fever victims.

A study that covered 15,670 individuals showed that in 1998, about one in five people were found to have an allergy to pollens.

In 2008, roughly one in three had such an allergy, according to the study.

This year could be particularly bad because of the amount of PM 2.5, particles that are less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, blown in from China, says Shigeharu Fujieda, a professor of otorhinolaryngology at the University of Fukui in Fukui.

These particles can reach deep into the lungs and blood vessels and cause asthma.

"If these particles are inhaled with pollens, it will become easier for allergic antibodies to be created," he said.

Manufacturers and retailers are set to tap into soaring demand for medications and related goods to ease people's suffering before the hay-fever season hits in earnest this spring.

Tokyo-based Unicharm Corp., which makes 20 kinds of surgical face masks for hay fever sufferers, says sales are twice what they were compared with the same period in 2012.

The Shinjuku outlet of craft and hobby store Tokyu Hands offers an expansive array of products from nasal sprays, netting to protect laundry drying outside from pollen to a dedicated attachment to a vacuum cleaner that removes pollen attached to clothes. It also sells a large assortment of face masks.

"The market (for anti-pollen goods) is expanding for sure," said a sales clerk at the store.

According to Daiichi Sankyo Co., the market for hay fever prescription drugs is worth between 200 billion yen and 300 billion yen ($2.13 billion and $3.2 billion).

"Each time the national health insurance system is revised, prices for such medications are lowered," said a Daiichi Sakyo official. "That means the number of patients is increasing."

(This article was written by Yosuke Akai and Seiko Sadakuni.)

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A shopper examines a surgical mask for hay-fever sufferers at the Shinjuku outlet of Tokyu Hands in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Feb. 6. The store sells 200 kinds of face masks. (Yosuke Akai)

A shopper examines a surgical mask for hay-fever sufferers at the Shinjuku outlet of Tokyu Hands in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Feb. 6. The store sells 200 kinds of face masks. (Yosuke Akai)

  • A shopper examines a surgical mask for hay-fever sufferers at the Shinjuku outlet of Tokyu Hands in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward on Feb. 6. The store sells 200 kinds of face masks. (Yosuke Akai)

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