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Why Silicon Valley is filled with so many sneezing and wheezing souls

By Mary Spicuzza

'MAYBE THE TREES are getting a bad rap for causing allergies," Jack Tomlinson, Japanese garden specialist at Saratoga's Hakone Gardens, says. "We've paved over most of this valley. Human beings are destroying so much of the fabric of life, so it seems the more living things planted, the better."

Tomlinson says that male plants are the primary pollen offenders, but doesn't think the boys should be exterminated--or go through invasive sex change surgeries. Rather, he advocates kinder, gentler garden maintenance. Hakone, a traditional Japanese garden created in 1917, wasn't designed specifically to be allergy-free, but it doesn't discriminate against female or fruit-producing trees. Instead Hakone emphasizes a balance between male and female, yin and yang.

"You can't just have one without the other," Tomlinson says. Each year, Tomlinson picks the pollen-producing candles off of the pine trees, thus removing the "offending male organs." He adds that rinsing trees at the garden reduces pollen counts, and suggests simply bathing trees rather than cutting them down.

Most of Silicon Valley, though, doesn't place such importance on balance. The paved paradise of strip-mall-laden suburbs sits in an air basin full of pollen, with few trees in the valley left to filter allergens.

Doctor Alan Goldsobel, president of Northern California's chapter of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, concedes that male plants may be largely responsible for the nation's allergy woes. But he suspects that the hills encompassing the valley are a big part of the problem.

"We've got a lot of pollen because of these hills. The air coming off the ocean has no pollen, which explains why a trip to Santa Cruz or San Francisco can help allergy sufferers. But in the valley, the hills, which are covered in weeds and pollen, keep everything encapsulated. It has to be a complete concrete jungle to avoid allergies altogether."

Goldsobel says San Jose may not actually have more allergy sufferers than the rest of California, but people have it worse due to a stagnant, pollen- and mite-infested air basin. And unlike areas of the Midwest and East Coast that freeze over for up to six months out of the year, Silicon Valley doesn't get snowy winters that would give allergic-types a break. Instead pollen counts fluctuate throughout the year, growing highest in early spring.

Goldsobel adds that the enormous amounts of time Bay Area residents now spend holed up indoors, staring at computer screens or TVs, surrounded by allergens like dust mites and pet dander, could also be causing major allergy problems.

But San Jose-based Goldsobel refuses to label the Bay Area as the allergy capital of the world. The seasoned allergist sniffs, "Everybody always says their part of the country is the worst for allergies."

For more information on allergies, check out the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America's website at www.aafa.org. or call its Northern California office at 415.339.8880.

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From the October 5-11, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.