Are poplars responsible for respiratory ailments in Kashmir?

Each year, in the month of May, the skies in Kashmir are filled with cotton spewed by poplars. And with this phenomenon, beeline of patients can be seen at the  hospitals, complaining about respiratory ailments. People in Kashmir have been blaming poplars for coughs, sneezes, runny noses, cold and fever, every spring and early summer. In 2015, the High Court, acting on a complaint,  directed all Deputy Commissioners of Kashmir to chop “Russian poplars” across Kashmir. It said health of general public was of “paramount importance”. The felling of the poplars continues even today, in a bid to give reprieve citizens of the “allergies” attributed to the poplars. On directions of the High Court, Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) and Directorate of Health Services Kashmir investigated and compiled a scientific report on the allergy resulting from the poplars, in 2015. As per the report, it is the seed of poplars that is visible to the naked eye and seen fluttering in the air, covered with a cottony fluff. The seed, the experts who worked on the report said, was too big to enter the blood stream and cause allergy. The report however concluded that “majority of the pollens bearing high potential of triggering allergic disorders were present in the atmosphere simultaneously with poplar seeds”.

Simultaneously, Government Medical College (GMC) Srinagar evaluated the common atmospheric pollens present in the air every spring in Kashmir. The study was based on prick tests, a scientific method of measuring the allergic reactions to “culprits” in individuals by placing a tiny amount of allergen under their skin through a skin-deep prick. The reports showed that pollen from park grass triggered allergies in 73.5 percent of the subjects;  pollen from pine trees caused allergic reactions in 62.7 percent people and mighty Chinars caused allergy in 59.3 percent people. While pollen, and not seeds of poplar trees caused allergy in about 20 percent subjects. Dr Naveed Nazir Shah, head department of Pulmonology at GMC Srinagar talked about fluff seeds of poplars. “They are too big to enter alveoli and cause allergy,” he said. Alveoli are the minute air sacs in lungs where the exchange of gases, carbon dioxide and oxygen takes place. He blames dust and the ‘season of bloom’ for the rise in complaints of respiratory issues. “Every plant and tree is in bloom in this season. Just because we cannot see these particles does not mean they do not exist,” he said. Dr Shah has been very vocal about role of dust particles, especially house dust and dust from roads, as a contributor to breathing problems. “Why are we not talking about the amount of dust that people are breathing in day in and day out,” he said. However, Prof Parvaiz A Kaul, head department of internal medicine and respiratory medicine at SKIMS  has been guarded in his verdict about poplars. The rise in respiratory ailments accompanying the release of cottony fluff of poplar trees is a fact that all doctors would acknowledge, he said. He added that the only time of the year when the hospitals witness a similar rush of people with respiration related symptoms is late autumn or beginning of winter when there is a high activity of various respiratory viruses. “I would not dismiss the findings of the GMC study but I feel we need to replicate the study on a larger sample size,” he said. OPD registrations of hospitals substantiate the assertions made by Prof Koul. On the other hand, the public and official response to a medical issue, many doctors feel, was a “dangerous sign” and showed lack of scientific approach. “Unsubstantiated claims about cause as well as remedies of respiratory issues are senseless acts,” said Dr Khursheed Ahmed Dar, pulmonologist at the GMC. He said his experience with patients has been that the spike in respiratory ailments accompanies the flowering season. “And yes, there are many other antigens in the environment,” he said. Recently, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (Kashmir) held a seminar on the poplar trees. Vice Chancellor, of the university, Prof Nazeer Ahmad expressed anguish at poplar trees becoming a “target of media trial and unnecessary public outrage”.

While underlining significance of poplar trees as a major green cover of Kashmir, especially in urban areas, he expressed concern over the consequences of mass cutting of the trees. “An expert committee needs to be constituted and recommendations need to be formulated and the same must be placed before the High Court,” he said. Poplar trees were introduced in 1982 in Kashmir under a World Bank-aided social forestry initiative. The trees are being widely cultivated in Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh and form the basis of plywood industry in these states, and Kashmir as well. The poplar timber and furniture industry in Kashmir is estimated to be Rs 600 crore.