pollen counter

A pollen counter sits in the backyard of a home in River Heights on Thursday.

Aerobiologist Landon Bunderson has an affliction: allergens. And anyone who has suffered severe seasonal allergies can attest, symptoms are rough.

“I love to open the windows at night and just have it really crisp and cool at night in my room,” Bunderson said. “It’s a gamble for an allergy sufferer to do that, because if the pollen is really high out there you wake up miserable.”

The misery of his allergy symptoms, in tandem with the misery of manually counting pollen particulates in his Ph.D. program, drove Bunderson to help start Pollen Sense — a Utah Valley-based company that developed a pollen counting device. The pollen counter takes in air samples and counts pollen, mold and dust particulates in the given sample.

On Sept. 5, Pollen Sense installed a pollen counter in Providence to add to the company’s burgeoning network throughout Utah. The pollen counter submits data hourly to an app — entitled “Pollen Wise” — so users can mitigate their exposure to particulates in the air based on their location.

Nathan Allen, the software architect for Pollen Sense, said certain models already exist for predicting when allergens may strike, but these models are limited by seasonal variances, wind and weather patterns and other variables.

“You can try to model it,” Allan said. “But it’s still a little bit of, like, Russian roulette with your nose.”

According to Bunderson, the traditional process of manually counting pollen looks something like this: A pollen trap set out and operated anywhere from 24 hours to a week, depending on what data you’re trying to gather.

Once the time has passed, the sample is placed on a microscope slide. The pollen on the slide is stained pink, and is counted one by one. Bunderson said an allergist could spend 1 to 3 hours per day manually counting the pollen in a 24 hour sample.

“I spent hundreds of hours staring into a microscope,” Bunderson said. “I had to get glasses because of the strain on my eyes and I was just like, ‘This is stupid.’”

And it’s becoming a task people are seemingly unwilling to do.

“There used to be about 100 manual counting stations in the U.S., and now there’s more like 70,” Bunderson said, explaining the previous generation is getting ready to retire and the U.S. is lacking youthful replacements. “It’s a dying art of pollen identification, and the classes where they teach that shrink every year.”

Bunderson said Pollen Sense has nearly a dozen pollen counters in Utah with other, smaller networks spread out across the U.S. and France. Costing $8,000 per unit, the primary Pollen Sense clientele are doctors, allergists and air quality officials. According to Allan, the vision is to eventually develop a less expensive home-use model for families with an asthmatic child or severe allergies.

Though he recognizes there is a point of diminishing return, Bunderson said he wants pollen counters in every community. But in the meantime, Allan said Pollen Sense is currently developing the app to show actual raw images of the particles in the air. He said some particles — ragweed, for example — are beautiful. Some particles even resemble the cosmos. Other particles, not so much.

“Some of them are downright terrifying,” Allan said with a laugh. “They look like sea creatures.”