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Do ‘Russian poplar’ seeds cause May illness in Kashmir? The fears, the science

Indian Express 2019-05-13 04:00:58

Over the years, people in the Valley have started to prefer the “Russian poplar” over the native Kashmiri poplar for its quick growth — 10-15 years to reach full size compared to 30-40 years for the Kashmiri poplar.

In May every year, hospitals and doctors in the Kashmir Valley find themselves treating a high number of patients, especially children, with respiratory diseases. The patients complain of sore throat, cold, cough and fever. While a common cause is pollen shed by various plants, the spike in illness has often been attributed to a phenomenon during this season — the shedding of fluffy cotton-covered seeds by poplar trees, commonly known as “Russian poplars”. Three years ago, this led to the Jammu & Kashmir High Court ordering chopping of all Russian poplars in the Valley. Scientists, on the other hand, have concluded that the seeds from these trees do not cause allergy.

The tree

Experts say “Russian poplar” is a misnomer as the tree has nothing to do with Russia. It was introduced in Kashmir in 1982 under a Word Bank-aided social forestry scheme. The tree is a Western American species known as Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) in the US. Over the years, people in the Valley have started to prefer the “Russian poplar” over the native Kashmiri poplar for its quick growth — 10-15 years to reach full size compared to 30-40 years for the Kashmiri poplar. By official estimates, the Valley today has 16-20 million of the non-Kashmiri species. Used to make wooden boxes for transportation of apples and other fruits from the Valley, poplar trees are a Rs 600-crore industry. Every year, the fruit industry in the Valley needs at least 300 lakh wooden boxes. The high-quality wood is also used in veneer and plywood.

Illness season

With the onset of May, the “Russian poplars” shed their seeds covered in cotton-like material. The cotton-covered seeds can be seen in the air, on the ground and in water-bodies. Around the same time, patients complaining of respiratory diseases swell many times. People have been blaming the seeds for the respiratory diseases.

High Court intervention

In 2014, a Srinagar resident approached the High Court with the complaint that his neighbour had planted “Russian poplars” near his home and pollen from the trees was causing allergy in his family, especially his ailing mother and his children. The applicant sought removal of the trees. The court banned sale, purchase and plantation of the female “Russian poplars” in Srinagar.

In May 2015, the court directed all Deputy Commissioners of the Valley to chop “Russian poplars” across Kashmir, saying the health of the general public is of “paramount importance”. “It is a common knowledge that pollen seed of Poplars is adversely affecting health of general public, mostly of elderly people and children. The pollen seed of these trees has given rise to chest diseases in Kashmir, which can become life threatening for them,” the court observed. Citing Article 21, the court also observed: “The right to life can become meaningful, only if a person is healthy.”

In May 2016, the court sought compliance of its order. Following the directive, lakhs of “Russian poplars” were cut down in various parts of the Valley, especially Srinagar city. Then Director of Education G N Itoo, too, ordered felling of all “Russian poplars” on the premises of schools. The chopping led to environmentalists calling it a “misinformed decision” based on wrong perception.

The expert view

Health experts stress that the cotton-like material from the poplars is not an allergen. It is the pollen — not visible to the naked eye — shed by “Russian poplars” that causes allergy, and in a relatively small number of people. A 2017 study by the Government Medical College, Srinagar, reached this conclusion. The study found that the pollen of “Russian poplars” can cause allergic reactions in less than 20% of the population. Compared to this, pollen from common grass is likely to cause allergic reactions in 73.5%, pollen from pine in 62.7% of the population, and pollen from chinar trees in 60% of the population. The study found that the biggest causative agent for respiratory diseases, in fact, is dust that can affect 92.7% of the population.