The Mast-Head: Bigger, Badder Poison Ivy

Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is among the so-called greenhouse gasses that are trapping heat around the earth

   Perhaps one of the more depressing, if relatively inconsequential, predictions of the results of the continued filling of the atmosphere with man-made carbon dioxide is that poison ivy will become more widespread and even more noxious.
    Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is among the so-called greenhouse gasses that are trapping heat around the earth. Researchers at a Duke University forest first noticed that a modest increase in the level of CO2, which they supplied to test woodland plots, caused poison ivy growth to surge. Headlines in the popular press followed the publication of the results in a scientific paper. Not only was the planet heating up, they cried, it is getting more dangerous, too.
    On my own little piece of ground, which is getting rapidly smaller every year, thanks to rising sea level-prompted erosion, bigger, badder poison ivy is grim news. Foolishly, about a week ago I went bare-armed at a weed-pulling effort around my two small, raised garden beds. Though I was wearing gloves, I got oil from poison ivy roots across my forearms. Then, I picked up our 3-year-old, whose side and back erupted in itchy welts a few days later.
    Ellis, who is in the indestructible post-toddler stage of youngboyhood, seemed little bothered by the rash. I, on the other hand, found the temptation to scratch nearly intolerable, and after trying Calamine lotion for a few days opted for cortisone — a steroid I usually avoid.
    I don’t know if you can overdose on cortisone applied to your arms, but at work one morning, I felt distinctly light-headed and had a strong urge to go hit home runs with Mark McGuire. Well, not really the home run part.
    CO2, the researchers found, causes poison ivy to produce a more potent form of urushiol, the oil that brings on the red and annoying allergic reaction in humans. Another study subsequently found that the juiced plants had double the growth rate and could bounce back from attempts at eradication more quickly.
    East Hampton Village, interestingly enough, where the Star office is, is more or less free of poison ivy. Reading a microfilm of a long-ago issue recently, I noticed an item about an early 20th-century drive to rid the village of the plant. Now, I can’t help but wonder if the predictions are right: Will the plant soon be, as one scientist joked, knocking at our windows?