Climate Research

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Tweetable Fact

Grab your calamine. Research shows higher CO2 emissions means bigger & meaner poison ivy plants

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Story Highlights

  • Scientists say increased CO2 emissions is making poison ivy worse.

  • The leaves are bigger than a decade ago, and the oil that causes the itchiness is more potent.

  • Forget “leaves of three, let it be.” More CO2 is leading to more “mutant “ plants with four or more leaves.

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More carbon dioxide (CO2) in our Earth’s system contributes to a warmer world. But is the additional CO2 also making the planet itchier? Probably. Research suggests that poison ivy gets bigger, itchier, and can even change form with increased CO2 levels. That’s disturbing news for the thousand of Americans each year plagued with the debilitating rash.

What causes the rash is something called urushiol, an oily toxin that inflames human skin on contact. All parts of the plant contain this oil, which can stay potent on almost any material for up to five years.

A 2007 study found that both the toxicity of urushiol and the size of poison ivy leaves increased when plants were exposed to greater amounts of CO2 . The figure above shows the amount of oil produced under different CO2 scenarios - following the rise from 1950 to today and continuing into the future as CO2 emissions are expected to keep going up.

Steven Greenspan, a horticulturalist with Poison Ivy Removal who has more than 45 years of experience, notes that 10 years ago, poison ivy leaves measured 2-4 inches in diameter. Now it’s not uncommon to find leaves 12-17 inches in diameter. As if that weren’t bad enough, Greenspan expects occurrences of “mutant poison ivy plants” with more leaves and larger vines to increase as more CO2 is emitted.

Below we have included images that may be useful for B roll or social media-related posts. All were taken in coastal U.S. States, from Massachusetts through Georgia, and should be credited to Steven Greenspan/Poison Ivy Removal.

The old saying “leaves of three, let it be” may soon be changing as poison ivy sprouts additional leaves due to increased CO2.
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The black lacquer like substance shown above is known as urushiol; as vines get bigger, they are producing more of this substance.
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Poison ivy is a resilient plant, growing taller while spreading through more urban and residential areas.
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