Only on the field does Yasuki Milsop find refuge from an ailment that has tormented he and scores of student-athletes and coaches at U.S. bases on Japan’s Honshu Island this spring. There, Milsop can put it all out of his head and concentrate on what he loves and does best, playing soccer.
But once the final whistle blows, he steps back into what one observer calls a “pollenated prison.” The Matthew C. Perry senior sweeper’s eyes begin tearing up and his nose runs uncontrollably.
“I can’t breathe right, I blow my nose every other second, my eyes itch and turn red,” Milsop said of the symptoms of an unusually strong hay fever sweeping Honshu that has even those who’ve never succumbed to the problem reaching for the Kleenex, antihistamine, eye drops and decongestant. “It doesn’t happen while I’m playing, but afterward, it starts again.”
The culprit: Elevated levels of cedar-tree pollen, six times more than normal, some Japanese media are reporting; so-called PM 2.5 metal and plastic particles carried by westerly winds from China; and yellow dust from the Gobi Desert, an annual problem with a history dating back to 174 AD.
“It’s the worst I can recall,” said Milsop, who’s lived in Japan most of his life and is a four-year starter for the Samurai.
His coach, Mark Lange, has taken to taping breathing strips to his nose. “We’re taking those with us to Tokyo,” Lange said of this weekend’s DODDS Japan tournament at Yokota High School, where conditions are similar.
“It’s been a tough one; I’m seeing a lot of people wearing surgical masks to protect themselves,” Yokota athletics director Tim Pujol said, adding that he’s also at times seen dust clouds accompanied by high wind gusts, once during the Tomodachi Bowl on March 10. “Really strange,” he said.
Nico Hindie, Nile C. Kinnick’s girls soccer coach who’s lived in Japan for 16 years, “never had allergies before. It’s the first time I’ve had it. It finally got me.”
One of his players, junior midfielder Elisha Dareing, missed a couple of days of practice as a result, as did two of Zama American’s baseball players, according to Trojans coach Jenny Torres. “It’s miserable,” she said.
It’s probably worst for athletes who must run a great deal, such as soccer players and track distance athletes. Kinnick track coach and athletics director Al Garrido said senior distance specialist Robert Beard and sophomore thrower Kyle O’Brien have been affected by the dust.
The effects are wearing not just on athletes trying to play through it, but on coaches who find themselves facing a second, mostly unseen opponent.
“It feels like you have a bad head cold,” Zama girls soccer coach Rogers Pitts said. “You can’t think straight, you’re irritable, you just want to be left alone.”
Given the combination and quantity of the airborne menaces, when does it bleed over from simply being a nuisance to becoming a safety issue?
Military and DODDS officials say that monitoring stations closely gauge particle levels on U.S. bases, as well as throughout Japan. Commanders have latitude to determine when outdoor activity will cease when particles exceed safe levels, as they do when the weather causes black-flag conditions.
Those levels vary from place to place in Japan. It’s 70 micrograms per cubic meter of air in Tokyo, 85 in Yamaguchi Prefecture that houses Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni and Perry High, and also in Nagasaki Prefecture, which houses Sasebo Naval Base and E.J. King School. Once those levels are exceeded, public warnings are issued, base and local authorities say.
At Yokota Air Base, air quality measurements by the base’s bio-environmental flight comes from the Tokyo Metropolitan Web site and date back a week. Over the last seven days, the microgram level ranged from 10 to 51, a 374th Airlift Wing public affairs official said.
In South Korea, it’s still cold enough — average highs in the 40s and lows below freezing — that pollen is not an issue yet. But Gobi dust is always an issue in spring; a 300-microgram dust reading is enough to postpone scheduled Korean-American Interscholastic Activities Conference soccer matches.
“You can feel it in your eyes and face, you can’t wear contacts,” said Donald Hedgpath, Seoul American athletics director who’s been in Korea for 25 years.
He and others say levels aren’t as bad as it’s been in the past, “but it has caused some respiratory problems which has exacerbated things,” Falcons boys soccer coach Steve Boyd said.
“When you can taste the metal, you know it’s bad,” said longtime Osan American athletics director Linda Concepcion, another who’s put her contacts on the shelf until school lets out in June. “It’s just not worth it.”
So far this season, yellow dust levels reached 200 “a couple of weeks ago,” Concepcion said. “I was concerned, then it dissipated.”
“It can be 300 in one location at 10 a.m., then by 1 p.m. it’s changed,” Hedgpath said.
So, what can be done to combat the problem and keep teams meeting their appointed rounds?
Monitor dust levels and communicate with counterparts at other schools, Hedgpath says. Ensure that things are safe enough to play, even before you release your teams to travel to other schools, working with medical clinics, school liaison officers and command, the latter which has final say on whether outdoor activities can take place.
And for the athletes themselves, keep taking whatever medication they’re taking, “drink water and make sure they get a lot of rest so they can play to their best ability at their next game,” Dareing said.