If You've Got Asthma, Azma.com Hopes to Help

Websites promise to forecast air quality and pollen counts for people with asthma and allergies.

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Last week was particularly bad for my asthma and allergies—itchy eyes, shortness of breath, an allergic rash on my arm, an extra hit or two from my emergency inhaler. So I was intrigued when I saw an E-mail announcing the launch of a new website, Azma.com, which claims to be able to provide a four-day air quality forecast of when spending too much time outside might be bothersome.

Surveillance Data Inc., a medical data company whose clients include pharmaceutical companies, operates the site and also runs Pollen.com, which provides four-day pollen predictions by ZIP code. "What we're trying to do is give people timely information to prepare themselves and take care of themselves," says Gerry Kress, senior adviser at Surveillance Data. The format of Azma.com, which launched June 30, is similar: Users enter their ZIP codes and get a four-day forecast of air quality levels in their areas, based on a proprietary formula that takes into account five major air pollutants, including ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide. For instance, upon entering the ZIP code for my employer in the Georgetown section of Washington, I learned that Thursday's air quality forecast was in the "moderate" range, but the outlook for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday was "poor" for all three days. The logical takeaway: I needed to avoid any strenuous outdoor exercise over the weekend, keep my windows closed, and crank up the air conditioning.

Kress says that it's too early to provide data on the accuracy of Azma.com's predictions,which the company is collecting by comparing its forecasts with what actually occurs. Pollen.com has a 96 percent accuracy rate for its forecasts, Kress claims. Both sites are supported by advertising, and users may find drug company advertisements on their screens as they enter their ZIP codes.

Some doctors say that they've noticed Pollen.com's predictions don't always jibe well with reality: "Sometimes the predictions of Pollen.com are good and sometimes they're totally off," says David Shulan, an Albany, N.Y.-based allergist in private practice, but the predictions can be used to help plan activities. Shulan does pollen counts for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. The group operates the National Allergy Bureau, which provides current actual pollen counts online. The method of "seeing the actual counts is going to be more accurate" than predicting what's going to happen a few days in advance, Shulan says. "You can see general trends of what's going on and if pollen is in the air."

When I entered my employer's ZIP code at Pollen.com late last week, I learned that the forecast for the next four days was for "low-medium to medium" levels of grass and plantain pollen in my area. A check of the AAAAI's pollen and mold report for my area revealed a "low concentration" of trees, weeds, and grass pollen but a "moderate concentration" of molds. Because both sites reported that the levels of allergens in my area weren't that high during the period I wasn't feeling well, neither was very useful in telling me exactly why last week was so bad for my allergies and asthma. It could have been mold, perhaps—or maybe, had I checked Azma.com before the July 4 holiday weekend, I would have found out I should have spent more time indoors. This past weekend, I got out of town.