New health threats from nature ~Climate change or coincidence?
Question: How do we know that climate change is a joke?
Answer: Even the Antarctic ice sheets are cracking up.
OK, that was a real groaner, but climate change is not a laughing matter. We have a responsibility to seriously discuss global warming and how it may affect future generations, who stand to inherit the worst of the problem.
By now, we’ve heard most of the arguments and, shall I say it, opinions? And you know what they say about uninformed opinions.
It is hard to imagine how something so obvious as a climate shift is not appreciated by some of our fellow human beings. Yet, not everyone agrees that humans have contributed to the problem. Then there are those who deny the very existence of global warming.
We have the run-of-the-mill climate deniers, the contrarians for whom nothing can change their minds; even the obvious. Some former deniers have finally admitted that the planet is warming, but do not believe humans have anything to do with it.
And some just don’t give a damn, leaving the problem for someone else to fix is their motto. The problem is, that someone is their grandchildren.
And then, there’s science
Many quotes memorialize Carl Sagan, but my favorite is “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The jury is in. Climate change is accelerating on our dear mothership Earth. Sorry, deniers, the inviolable law of cause and effect is now knocking at our door.
How we imagine climate change may not coincide with reality. Avid skiers may grieve the loss of a beloved winter sport and detest the effects of global warming. While others can think of no better pastime than lying on a Florida beach under the sun. These individuals may harbor warmer (pardon the unintended pun) sentiments about global warming.
That’s fine, but that is a simplistic understanding of a highly complex situation. Humankind has survived much colder climates since our appearance on the global stage, and we have adapted to at least one ice age.
However, this is the first time we have experienced a warming climate on the scale anticipated in our current dilemma.
Nature always shows her intentions on a grand scale, such as the rapidly melting ice sheets and rising ocean levels. Likewise, there are more subtle signs in nature that we may miss. We all know about coral bleaching and the plight of the polar bear regarding climate change, but what about those “canaries in the coal mine” a little closer to home?
It is the small things that are happening in response to global warming that this article will consider. Poison ivy and Amanita phalloides, the deadliest mushroom in the world, exhibit recent and worrying changes in size, range and virulence.
Are we merely witnessing anomalies or harbingers of things to come?
We must expect the unexpected as we enter into a changing climate that we are only beginning to understand. We are about to experience first-hand the range and fury of an abused and neglected planet.
“Late at night, while you’re sleeping, poison ivy comes a creeping around.” The Coasters 1959
With this new and improved (from the plant’s point of view) version of Poison Ivy, we may need “an ocean of calamine lotion,” as the song went on to say.
As a reminder, poison ivy causes skin rashes (contact dermatitis) when we come in contact with urushiol, a sap oil found on all parts of the plant, including the leaves, vines and fruit.
A whopping 85 percent of Americans are allergic to poison ivy, affecting more than 50 million people annually. For some, the rash is just a minor discomfort, while for others, it means a trip to the emergency room. It is presently a significant health threat, and this viny monster becomes more so each season.
In response to increased carbon dioxide levels, poison ivy is growing much larger leaves to increase photosynthesis. This one plant species is taking full advantage of a warming climate, 70 percent more than any other plant studied.
A more virulent form of urushiol accompanies the increasingly larger size of the leaves and vines. If you already know that you are allergic to the sap, then the “warming planet” version of poison ivy will likely leave you with a far more severe case of contact dermatitis.
With dramatically larger leaves coming out earlier in the year, we are seeing vines getting larger and more prevalent in the trees’ crowns. And, like grapevines, poison ivy can strangle the trees.
Canada used to be a refuge from poison ivy; you didn’t have to be concerned with urushiol rashes in the Great White North. This new and more aggressive variant of poison ivy is expanding its range, crossing the border, and heading north.
My apologies and a bit of advice to our fine neighbors to the north; calamine lotion is flying off the shelves, better grab some soon.
I know of one or two people in the area who eat a bit of poison ivy every spring, believing that it confers immunity from the plant’s toxicity – this is a myth. You run the risk, especially with a more virulent form of urushiol, of a severe rash in the mouth, throat and digestive system. *
As all firefighters know, breathing in the smoke from burning poison ivy can cause the lungs to become inflamed and is sometimes fatal. I have memories of an aunt who raked up a pile of ivy in her backyard and set a match to it. She paid dearly for the smores she made over the fire – two months in the hospital on a respirator.
Author’s Note: The Vancouver Daily reports that thousands of lethal mushrooms marching north to Canada were turned back at the border by the RCMP this past weekend. No shots were fired by the Mounties, but reports say that several of the desperate migrants committed fungicide as an act of protest.
A hundred or so older Canadian men dressed up as maple trees were shouting “build that wall,” while those without diagnosed dementia were carrying signs warning Americans to keep their mushrooms and poison ivy on their own side of the border.
And, this, after we put up with their unprecedented wildfire smoke all summer.
Will this migration-fueled confrontation lead to more serious conflict between neighboring countries? If it does, you’ll hear about it first in this column.
I was trail-running in a metro park in Columbus, Ohio, some years ago. It was early autumn, and I encountered a young school teacher leading a group of youngsters on a nature hike. The trail was narrow, so I stepped off the path to allow the group to pass in single file.
Near the end of the group, a boy passed by with a basket of mushrooms the group had gathered. At the very top of the collection of mushrooms were two large Amanitas. And not just any of the 600 species of Amanita, but the deadliest of all, Amanita Phalloides, aka the Death Cap. I asked the young man to stop so that I could make an identification.
The teacher strode back to see what was going on with her charges. She seemed agitated and demanded to know what was going on. Calmly and politely, I told her the basket the young man was carrying contained at least two deadly mushrooms. For a brief moment, the teacher looked puzzled, and then her demeanor suddenly turned to scorn in the “mind your own business” sort of way. Without further ado, she practically dragged the basket boy up to the front of the line and strode off as if I was a certified nut-job.
On my way home after my run, I stopped at the ranger station and talked to the officer on duty, whom I knew from running there often. He told me that the teacher had stopped in the office with the basket of mushrooms and told him about her encounter with me on the trail.
The ranger informed the teacher that the basket contained a few puffballs, some chanterelles (both are edible species), and two large Amanita phalloides. He said he removed the Death Caps from the basket and made it clear that had she fed these to the children, they would have likely died as a result. (Eating just half of one cap of Amanita phalloides can kill an adult.)
According to the ranger, she turned white as a sheet and promptly left, leaving the mushrooms and the basket. That is how easy it is to get the wrong mushroom when foraging without making proper identification.
So, what did the previous anecdote have to do with climate change? Nothing, on its own, except for the fact that, like poison ivy, the Amanita phalloides is getting a larger foothold in America and expanding its range.
Few shroomers know that the death cap is an invasive fungus from Europe. This attractive mushroom was first discovered in America in the early 1900s on the West Coast. The spore probably arrived in the root ball of a deciduous European tree.
Amanita p. accounts for more than 90 percent of all mushroom deaths in the countries where it is found. This species is often confused with puffballs, straw mushrooms and an edible Amanita called the Caesar mushrooms. Unlike some mushrooms, morels for example, Amatoxins are thermostable, so no amount of cooking will destroy their lethality.
The insidious thing about Amanita p. is that its victims find its taste delicious, so they tend to ingest more of the Amanita toxin. Medically, there are three distinct phases of Amatoxin poisoning. There is a latency period of six hours or more where the patient feels OK. Then nausea and diarrhea set in, followed by a “honeymoon” period where the victim feels fine again.
However, without medical intervention, damaging amatoxin begins building up in the liver and kidneys, leading to a multiorgan failure and death up to three to five days later. Reportedly, eating this lethal mushroom leads to an agonizing death.
Until recently, few medical procedures could save advanced-stage amatoxin patients. The administration of a compound called silibinin found in milk thistle has achieved some success in saving the lives of patients who have not yet suffered too much organ damage. The message here is that waiting too long after ingesting Amanita p. will likely be fatal.
If you suspect you ingested either Amanita phalloides or Amanita virosa, seek medical attention immediately. And, if possible, bring one of the mushrooms or a photograph of one so that a proper identification can be made.
Author’s Note: I am embarrassed to apologize to the Canadians for the second time in this article. However, the damn fungus is spreading north into British Columbia.
As a way of apologizing for the invasion of Amanita phalloides into Canada, you Canucks are welcome to put a Tim Horton’s in Hillsboro, West Virginia, if you wish. Just think about it; Americans and Canadians working in tandem to mitigate climate change while eating maple cream donuts and drinking stout coffee.
Whatta ya say, Canada?
All feeble attempts at humor aside; shall we give our children the gift of wisdom and leadership or throw them to the wolves? We are all embarking on what may very well be the most serious existential threat to humans yet. Let’s fight to save this beautiful blue planet while we still can.
Citations are available on request.
*Tec Labs – Can You Become Immune to Poison Ivy?