Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Monique Keiran: Plant prolificity produces a surfeit of sneezes

I’m allergic to plant sex. Specifically, plant sex of the windblown variety. Even more specifically, grass sex.

I’m allergic to plant sex. Specifically, plant sex of the windblown variety. Even more specifically, grass sex.

The Aerobiology Research Laboratories report high levels of grass pollen in Victoria this week, so I’m keeping eyedrops and hankies on hand. The Ottawa-based labs use measurements of plant pollen in cities across Canada to track and predict local week-by-week allergy severity.

With so much of Victoria’s landscape bursting into bloom at this time of year, we could easily celebrate a Spring Sneeze-Up following April’s Blossom Count.

Flowers are plants’ naughty bits, after all. Because plants suffer from mobility issues, they take advantage of wind, rain and animal pollinators to help them do the deed and make plant embryos, or seeds.

We who suffer from airborne-pollen misery are merely immunologically protesting the presence of abundant, floating sperm released by plants without regard to Victorian propriety or the neighbours.

When you put it that way, who wouldn’t snort, sneeze or sniff in protest?

Allergies are not well understood. They have long been considered akin to disease, the result of an immune response gone wonky and overly sensitive. They cause the same itchy, sneezing, coughing, dry-eyed, runny nose, headachey and even barfy symptoms that accompany common illnesses like colds and stomach bugs. But, of course, allergic reactions aren’t caused by viruses and bacteria. They’re caused by usually benign substances that really shouldn’t — wouldn’t ordinarily — hurt a flea.

Some allergy scientists recently suggested we’re looking at allergies all wrong. The researchers suggest allergic responses may not be an accident of off-target immune systems at all, but rather a deliberate defence against possible harm that has served Homo sapiens well for many thousands of years.

In other words, allergies may have evolved to encourage us to avoid environments, animals or foods that contain potentially harmful substances. By making us feel miserable, allergies, like the pain response, cause us to avoid their triggers.

The hypothesis is controversial. Yet, as the researchers pointed out in the science journal Nature, for much of human history, most environmental toxins were noxious chemicals found in plants and venoms.

Of course, we’ve complicated matters for ourselves. We live alongside the same allergens humans have always been exposed to, but it’s now very difficult to rearrange our lives to avoid them. Only those with dire reactions reshuffle their lives to be free of peanuts, wheat, pollen or whatever threatens them.

We’ve also created whole new families of chemicals to react to.

Not all modern chemicals are allergens. But a growing body of research suggests some new chemicals make us more allergic. Some increase our immune responses to everyday, old-timey substances we’d otherwise be okay with.

For instance, one study shows working with pesticides makes farmers more likely to develop allergies. In other studies, children exposed to cigarette smoke or who have taken a particular common antibiotic were more likely to develop asthma. And earlier this year, another study uncovered links between food allergies and common pesticides used as herbicides and to chlorinate drinking water.

The research suggests at least a smidgeon of truth in the perception we’re in the midst of an allergy pandemic.

I would avoid peanuts, wheat and maybe even chocolate to avoid feeling ill, but I draw the line at pulling up stakes because of my allergies. There’s no way some plants sowing their wild oats are going to chase me away from blossom time in Victoria.

My allergies aren’t severe enough for that.