Dan Gates, with Albuquerque's Air Quality Division, measures pollen in the air. Despite a 1994 city ban on trees like mulberry, elm and cottonwood, residents have to wait decades for existing trees to die before pollen levels likely will go down.
Dan Gates, with Albuquerque's Air Quality Division, measures pollen in the air. Despite a 1994 city ban on trees like mulberry, elm and cottonwood, residents have to wait decades for existing trees to die before pollen levels likely will go down. Jeff Brady/NPR
When you think of regions that might be bad for those with tree pollen allergies, the Southwest may not be the first to come to mind. Cities like Albuquerque don't have as many trees as most towns, but the few trees that are there, combined with the hot, dry and often windy weather, can create big problems for allergy sufferers.
In 1994, the City Council added a pollen-control ordinance to the books banning entire categories of trees, including mulberry, cypress and most cottonwoods. It threatens violators with a $500 fine.
But is the ordinance doing any good? Dan Gates, who works for the city's Air Quality Division, would know. Most mornings, he can be found at one of two pollen-monitoring stations in Albuquerque. He changes out slides smudged with grease that collect pollen grains from the air, and examines the slides under a microscope to come up with that day's pollen count.
When he looks at a couple of decades worth of pollen-count data, Gates says, there's no indication the numbers are on the decline.
That's disappointing news for Albuquerque residents such as Malachi Romero. He enjoys riding his bike along the Rio Grande, near downtown. This time of year, he wears a mask to filter out pollen.
"I'm using it for the allergies," Romero says. "They get real bad."
It's not just the cottonwoods by the river that bother Romero.
"The two trees that are at my house are outlaw trees," he says. "Those were planted before that law passed."
That's the main reason pollen counts aren't down, says Albuquerque City Forester Nick Kuhn. Although the 1994 ordinance barred residents from planting new trees, it grandfathered in the old ones.
"We have to wait for those trees to grow to their mature age and die," Kuhn says.
These days, Kuhn spends a lot of time educating Albuquerque residents and local nurseries about what trees are allowed. Some of his advice is good for allergy sufferers everywhere. For example, those who want to avoid hay fever-inducing trees should pick flowering trees for their yards.
"If you see it's got pretty flowers, that's a good tree to have because they're evolved to use insects, not wind," Kuhn says. "They're not the allergenic species."
And, Kuhn says, female or sterile trees are always safe because they don't release any pollen.