Hiking and other outdoor recreation can be an amazing past-time, and there are myriad physical and mental health benefits to spending that time outside. But as greenhouse gas emissions continue to exacerbate climate change, one pesky blight on the trail could get even worse: poison ivy.
I happen to be one of the unlucky hikers out there who seem to end up with a bad rash if I even look at poison ivy the wrong way.
Purdue Extension warns that “a mere touch of poison ivy foliage can result in skin blotches and burning water blisters, which cause the flesh beneath to swell and throb with intense pain.”
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This terrible reaction is caused by a chemical compound called urushiol in the plant’s sap and can rear its head in a short time or even a few days later after contacting someone’s skin. It’s also not soluble in water, so removing it from skin requires some extra work.
For this edition of the Scrub Hub, in keeping with the recent trend of topics that make your squirm and scratch, we look to answer the question: Is climate change going to make poison ivy worse?
We examined academic research and scoured old studies to bring you an answer.
There’s no beating around the bush here: Increased carbon emissions, the leading cause of climate change, will not only cause poison ivy to grow more abundant, but will also cause urushiol to become more toxic.
A team of researchers out of Duke University conducted a six-year study at a research forest in North Carolina to test if high carbon dioxide levels would affect poison ivy. They had previously noted carbon dioxide levels affecting other plants, and wanted to put the three-leaved menace to the test.
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The scientists determined what the predicted global concentration of CO2 would be by midcentury and found that these levels increase poison ivy’s photosynthesis, water use efficiency, growth and biomass. This means the ivy will be able to grow much faster and larger under those conditions.
“The CO2 growth stimulation exceeds that of most other woody species,” the study revealed. “Furthermore, high-CO2 plants produce a more allergenic form of urushiol.”
Sorry. Much larger and more poisonous, yikes!
This is not only bad news for people wishing to stay rash free, but large vines compete with other plants and trees. This unfair competition could lead to higher tree mortality, a loss of biodiversity and inhibit forest regeneration.
Poison ivy takes in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, the process of using sunlight to make food from CO2 and water.
As more CO2 is introduced to the plant, it’s able to create more sugars, or photosynthates, allowing it to grow longer vines with more leaves. This process can also increase as the planet warms because the process of collecting CO2 is accelerated.
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Carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s atmosphere hit a new record in 2021, reaching just under 415 parts per million, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“Carbon dioxide concentrations are rising mostly because of the fossil fuels that people are burning for energy,” NOAA’s website says. “Fossil fuels like coal and oil contain carbon that plants pulled out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis over many millions of years; we are returning that carbon to the atmosphere in just a few hundred.”
Here in Indiana, power plants and metal manufacturing contributed to the large majority of the state’s CO2 emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The state in 2020, released just under 112 million metric tons of carbon dioxide making it the 8th largest CO2 emitter in the U.S.
If global emissions continue, the Duke University paper says poison ivy will take advantage of the excess carbon in the atmosphere and grow 149% faster than it does today. On average, other woody plants grew only 31% faster under similar CO2 conditions.
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While the poison ivy in the study grew in much more abundance, the concentration of urushiol (that terrible chemical compound that causes rashes) increased 153%. So not only is that plant growing bigger and more abundant, but it is also becoming more poisonous.
All this is to say that increased greenhouse gasses could cause poison ivy to become much more abundant in the woods and more people could become susceptible to its wrath (sorry, rash).
While poison ivy and its urushiol are not lethal if humans touch the plant, it does already cause about 80% of the people exposed to it to develop that itchy, sometimes painful dermatitis. Higher urushiol concentrations could mean that more and more people become affected by poison ivy.
Purdue Extension’s former horticultural specialist recommends washing any skin that may have touched poison ivy with a strong alkali soap to relieve discomfort. The plant’s chemical is an oil, so just rinsing with water will not help clear the skin of the toxin. Alcohol can also dissolve the oils poison ivy leaves behind and help wash it away. If these are done soon enough, a person could dodge a rash altogether.
For now, take care in the woods and remember the old saying: “Leaves of three, let it be.”
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