Cynthia Merrell never had allergy problems before. So she was surprised when, soon after she moved here four years ago from Virginia, she started sniffling and sneezing and suffering from a stuffy nose.
"I thought Arizona was supposed to be a good place for people with allergies," she said.
Merrell is not alone. Experts say many people, including some physicians, still have an image of Arizona as a haven for allergy sufferers, a dry, clean desert environment that will cure what ails you.
That myth, which Arizona Lung Assn. head Ben Chaiken says was not true even when tuberculosis and asthma patients flocked here decades ago, is even further from the truth now.
Phoenix is now a sprawling metropolis where, scientists say, progress and growth have created nothing but problems for those prone to allergies:
* The widespread use of irrigation has resulted in a 10-month growing season, bad news for those who suffer from pollen and grass allergies.
* Transplanted residents who imported non-native plants have increased the variety of flora that can trigger allergic reactions. The top local offenders, mulberry and olive trees, are not indigenous.
* Population growth has resulted in more air pollution, a contributor to allergy problems.
* Phoenix allergist Dr. William Rieck believes that an additional factor as well may be at play here--an allergy-loaded gene pool.
Because people have traditionally moved to the Phoenix area to escape allergy miseries, he said, a higher percentage of the population is allergy-prone. When those people meet and marry others who also suffer from allergies, the odds are good they will pass on allergic tendencies to their children. The process has repeated itself over generations until a city once believed to be allergy-safe actually has a high number of allergy-prone residents.
"Nationwide, about 10% to 15% of the population suffer from allergies," he said. "Here, about 20% to 25% do."
Dr. Michael Ruff, a Dallas allergist on the public education committee of the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology, said this genetics theory makes sense.
A child with one allergic parent stands a 25% to 40% chance of developing allergies, Ruff said. Offspring of two parents with allergies have a 50% to 75% chance of inheriting those problems, he said.
Rieck said not only are more people here suffering from allergies, but the severity of their problems seems to grow each year. This year record rainfall has resulted in a spring allergy season that is the worst in recent memory.
Meteorologist Ed Phillips said the Phoenix area received a year's worth of rainfall in the first three months of this year, 8.56 inches in a city where the average annual rainfall is 7.64 inches.
"When you have this huge amount of rain before the growing season, you have monstrous growth. While it's beautiful to see the desert in bloom, it's terrible for allergy sufferers," he said.
Kelly Serago can already attest to that. A Phoenix native who is allergic to 257 substances, she said her allergies have not been this bad in years: "I am miserable."
The Phoenix City Council recently took a step toward alleviating one problem, voting to outlaw offending varieties of olive and mulberry trees. After Jan. 1, 1994, anyone who plants them would be guilty of a petty offense and subject to fine of up to $250.
But allergic Phoenicians shouldn't toss out their tissue boxes just yet. Existing trees will continue to aggravate allergies. And unless surrounding cities pass similar ordinances, pollen can still blow into the city.
Are other sections of the country suffering increasingly severe allergy seasons? Ruff said some of the same factors affecting Phoenix--air pollution and unusually high rainfall--are present elsewhere and would logically intensify allergy problems. And, he said, studies have shown that asthma, the chronic lung disease that can be triggered by allergic reactions, is increasing at an alarming rate.
So is there any allergy-safe place to live? No, Ruff said. People are born with allergic tendencies and, although a new environment may help for a short time, repeated exposure to new materials will probably cause allergy problems.
"What I usually tell my patients is that they should be more concerned with finding a place to live where they have access to good quality medical care," he said.