Hay fever in Japan.

It’s the wrong time of year for it, hay fever in japan usually hits in spring, but given that the next issue of Japan Inc. magazine carries details of a new invention to help control it, we thought we’d give some advance notice on the subject here at Terrie’s Take.

Back in 2001, Terrie’s Take 291, we reported the fact that the National Center of Child Health and Development in Tokyo reckoned that 90% of Japanese born in the 1970s have allergies of some type or other, and in particular hay fever and carpet mite sensitivity. In that issue we speculated that Japanese kids are brought up in an overly hygienic environment and have lost some of their resistance to the bugs around us.

Whether that is correct or not, we can’t help feeling sorry for the kids affected. Take our own 9-year old daughter, Eva, for instance. Every spring and sometimes in the fall she suffers from hay fever (“kafunsho”, allergic rhinitis) which sometimes seems to verge on asthma. Her eyes go red and itchy, the mucous membranes swell up, each day starts with a sore throat and runny nose, and on bad days there are pounding headaches. As parents, it’s tough looking at attacks of hay fever and knowing that there really isn’t a remedy for it.

Eva is not alone of course. In fact outside of China, Tokyo has one of the highest levels of hay fever and related allergy incidences in the world. When the affliction started to become prevalent in the 1970’s and ’80’s it was generally thought to be caused by air pollution. However, more recent studies have proven that more than 60% of cases are in fact directly attributable to the excess of Japanese Cedar (“sugi”) trees planted around the capital. They were planted in their millions in the 1950’s and ’60’s, to serve as a convenient timber source. Now that many of them are 40-50 years old, they are at the peak of their lifecycle and collectively pump out about 1,800 to 2,000 pollen per square centimeter each spring. This means tons of pollen per acre.

The situation in Tokyo is now so bad it is estimated that at least 20% of the adult population suffers from hay fever. In spring of 2005 the matter came to a head when the pollen count increased 4,200% over the previous year due to a dry hot summer the year before. Even Governor Shintaro Ishihara came down with it, and as a consequence he initiated a program to reduce the number of pollen-bearing Sugi by replacing them with a new low-pollen variety over the next 10 years. If you’d like to know what the pollen count forecast and history are, you can check out the statistics on the Kafun home page produced by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, at http://www.fukushihoken.metro.tokyo.jp/kanho/kafun/index.html.
In Japanese only.

Hay Fever is big business. Given that the majority of pollen allergy sufferers are aged 30-60 years of age – prime working age, it has both negative and positive real effects on the Japanese economy. On the debit side, according to an estimate by the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute (DLR), employee absenteeism and lowered productivity resulted in a JPY380bn (US$3.3bn) drop in GDP for the first quarter of 2005.

Perversely, on the credit side, DLR reckons the market for hay-fever prevention products and medicines is worth JPY750bn (US$6.52bn). The biggest selling items are eye drops and face masks – highlighting the lack of effectiveness of other remedies. DLR notes, however, that the large number of people staying indoors probably also impacted revenues in the leisure and restaurant industries.
In the first quarter of 2006, the pollen counts were almost back to normal levels, thanks to wetter weather, and DLR says that the nation’s GDP for March-April recovered by about JPY229.4bn (US$1.99bn) as a result.


But while the adults understand what is going on, it is the children who probably suffer the most, as in the case of our 9-year old daughter. A March 2006 survey by Rohto Pharmaceutical found that just over 30.2% of children under the age of 16 have hay fever. It is generally accepted that there is a causal effect between hay fever and asthma, with pollen, dust, mites, and other matter being the major points of blame. There have also been some studies in the last ten years which connect asthma to atopy (skin afflictions), through the interleukin-4 (IL-4) gene. Thus, controlling hay fever may be more important than just bringing sore eyes and a runny nose under control.

The mechanism for hay fever is that the immune system recognizes an allergen in the environment, such as Sugi pollen, and produces immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies.
These antibodies are unique in that they signal the immune system to release histamine. While histamine is a normal compound found in body cells, in an allergic reaction it circulates through the bloodstream and constricts the small muscles around air passages in the lungs (inducing wheezing or asthma), increases the flow of mucus, and causes smaller blood vessels to contract and pass fluid into tissues.
Coughing and sneezing are the body’s way of trying to expel the allergens from the air passages, while the difficulty of breathing with asthma comes about from the windpipe muscles constricting.

Most people combat hay fever with a combination of masks, pills, plasma air conditioners, and even moving somewhere else. But there is now an interesting new remedy available
— that of photocatalysts, and specifically Titanium Oxide (TiO2). The Japanese are literally a decade ahead of the rest of the world in this area of materials science, building on the discovery in 1967 by Todai graduate student Akira Fujishima and his professor, Kenichi Honda, that TiO2 has natural self-cleaning and antibacterial properties.
They discovered that under the presence of ultraviolet light, TiO2 can break down and render harmless airborne pollutants and organic matter such as mold and bacteria.

The discovery caused an international sensation when announced. The properties have since became known as the “Honda-Fujishima” effect, and in cooperation with Toto Limited, Japan’s largest sanitary ceramics products manufacturer, the technology has been commercialized. This was a smart move for Toto, which today owns four basic patents related to photocatalysts. The business from IP licencing alone will be worth JPY1bn (US$8.69m) to the company in 2006, consisting mainly of its photocatalytic process provided to 80 licencees globally. Based on projected increases in usage of photocatalytic technology in the next 5 years, Toto can expect this highly profitable revenue to increase at least five-fold.

The first TiO2 products were self-cleaning, non-yellowing white building tiles released in 1994. More recently, however, the compound’s antibacterial properties are receiving much more attention. TiO2 now appears in such diverse products as air-purification systems, odor-fighting refrigerators and ovens, self-disinfecting medical devices, and even a formaldehyde-busting wall paper! Readers may recall that formaldehyde is one of the suspected causes of sick house syndrome. The overall market in Japan by 2010 for TiO2 products is estimated to reach around JPY1trn (US$8.69bn).

We’ll cover the actual company offering the new hay fever busting invention in a later issue of Terrie’s Take, but in the meantime, you can check out Zen World’s English website at http://www2.ocn.ne.jp/~lmint28/home.html. The grammar on the site needs some work, but the electron microscope photos pretty much say it all. From what we have discovered in our own recent research (for the magazine story), photocatalysts do appear to be a viable alternative in controlling pollen and other unwanted airborne bacteria and matter. They are odorless, convenient, and cost nothing to run after being applied.