Pollen-Nation Biology

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A pollen count of 120 is considered EXTREMELY HIGH in the southeast.image link

We spoke to several relatives from the Deep South last week when the pollen count in Atlanta reached 5500 particles. And small wonder that we could barely understand their scratchy voices: allergies and throat irritations are at almost record levels.

And all that yellow stuff that coats their cars and makes that yukky scummy froth on every garden pond and lake is finding its way deep into their lungs. Thank goodness for MUCOCILIARY CLEARANCE! Right?

This is one of the healthy body’s unappreciated “miracles” that keeps our lungs from becoming the waste heaps they would quickly become if all the soot, fungal spores, bacteria, dust, rug and clothing fibers AND POLLEN that we breathe in every day stayed deep inside our lungs air exchange surfaces.

Two things happen: the GOBLET CELLS that are richly scattered in this epithelium or lining tissue secrete a sticky glue–MUCUS–that traps the particles.

The CILIA are living whips–cellular organelles that are constantly in motion. And this motion is not random but coordinated–even within entire fields of such cells–so that there is a POWER STROKE and a RECOVERY STROKE. The power stroke, of course, is in the direction of UP and OUT. The cilia (as you can see in these movies) push particles toward the throat where we reflexively swallow, sending those umpteen thousand pollen grains to the hydrochloric acid in our stomachs instead of ending up in our lungs. UNLESS…

Unless you kill the cilia. If you want to do that, light a cylinder of plant material with a match. Put it to your lips and inhale. Cilia in this environment beat weakly, then stop entirely. And where does all that mucus-plus-pollen end up? You guessed it. It slides so deeply in the lungs that it can’t be coughed up–no matter how violently you try. Make a wonderful medium for bacteria. Can you say PNEUMONIA?

(Parents, this little biology lesson with movies makes a good visual motivator to the would-be smokers in your family.)

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. aren’t our bodies such wonderfully complex things? i’m always amazed at all the little things it is constantly doing to keep us healthy, that most of us are unaware of.

    that pollen count explains a lot, as we’ve all had the scratchy throats and runny noses this past week.

  2. Wow, you know I just did something on the pollen count in my blog. Atlanta had counts of about 5500. It’s really frightening. I think they may just have to raise the extremely high number ‘cuase if were getting counts in the thousands then I think someone needs to change the measurment system.