Biological Terror

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Biological Terror From Nature

by Bill Sardi by Bill Sardi


It all started with a hike up a path near my house. There were brush and tree limbs pushed out onto the pathway at a bend in the trail where hikers and mountain bikers would run right into it. I began to lift the tree limbs and brush and thrust them to the side of the trail. It was only a moment later I realized there was some poison oak limbs in the brush I had cleared. OK, go home, wash your hands and arms, as advised when exposure occurs.

"Leaves three let it be" is the advice that is given to anybody who is outdoors. Poison oak and ivy are known for the three-pronged leaves. But this advice is misleading. I never touched the leaves. Little did I know that the toxic oil in poison oak (urushiol oil) can become airborne and likely had been deposited on my clothes.

Only a billionth of a gram of this oil is needed to incapacitate an army of 400 people and create a latent skin rash that is next to unbearable. The advice that needs to be given is to steer clear of even getting in the proximity of poison oak, or its cousin, poison ivy. If you are exposed, go home, throw your clothes away and get in the shower and scrub and scrub with soap.

My poison oak rash erupted three days later, and by now I had spread its toxic oil to who knows where — on my tennis shoes, automobile steering wheel, chairs, bedding — the list is endless. I had been mounting up a histamine response that would be excruciating.

As the rash spreads it initially gives you the false impression it might be some sort of virus, like the chicken pox spreads its bumps. But the rash forms into straight lines, characteristic of poison oak.

The problem with running to the drug store is that the false impression is given that there are remedies there. What is offered at the drug store are overpriced tubes of soap with a skin abrasive that helps get the oil out of the skin. But these must be employed within a few hours of initial exposure to be effective and my exposure was days ago. These poison oak remedies cost $30 for 1-ounce or 4-ounce tubes. I used them, with little effect.

By my third week into this ordeal, I was at an auto parts store, spied a hand cleaner called Fast Orange which combines pumice as a skin abrasive with soaps and lanolin, aloe vera, glycerin, and jojoba oil as moisturizers and skin softeners. I bought a 28-ounce tube for $2.99, or the equivalent of 7 of the widely advertised poison oak remedy at the drug store which would cost me $210 for 28 ounces. A whole gallon spray bottle of Fast Orange (128 ounces, equivalent to 42 of the 3-ounce tubes) costs only $9.97 online. Keep some of this handy if poison oak or poison ivy is growing near your home. The makers of the widely-advertised, over-priced remedies for poison ivy and oak prey upon the desperation of the affected person.

A report published in the International Journal of Dermatology (volume 39, page 515, July 2000) shows that high-priced Tecnu provided 70% protection compared to 62% for Goop (another pumice hand cleaner) and 56% for Dial soap. The difference in protection is insignificant and the price differs by 18-times.

I tried all kinds of remedies mentioned online — alum, banana leaves, lemon peel, Fels-Naptha soap, orange peel oil (a natural degreaser). For me, these were of little help.

The best topical skin relievers and anti-itch products I found were a product called Ivarest and calamine/analgesic I picked up at Walgreen’s, under their label. Solarcaine makes an aloe-based burn relief gel with a topical pain reliever that is quite soothing.

Then there was advice from someone who had a very bad case of poison oak, to get in the bathtub and pour Clorox in and soak in it. This helped, but it also spread the oil and the rash. So the best advice is to soap up in the shower, not the tub.

The best topical remedy that strikingly relieved my itching came to me by way of a friend who shared an old Polish home remedy for poison oak. First, acquire rubbing alcohol and apply it to your skin, to disinfect. Then pour salt on your rash and rub it in with vinegar. This is a cheaper and more effective treatment than the $30 tubes in the drug store. My incessant itching was knocked down considerably.

My friend told me the itching wouldn’t come back after using the alcohol, salt and vinegar treatment. But that wasn’t my experience. The rash lingered and kept spreading. By now I was not just putting my clothes in the wash and adding some Clorox, but I was throwing away robes, t-shirts, shorts, even tennis shoes. The rash persisted.

I was losing sleep, showering 6 times a day, throwing my clothes in the washing machine every time I showered, and obtaining only temporary relief. Hot water removes the histamine response in the skin for a couple of hours, but then the itching returns.

The dermatologist offered remedies that were problematic in themselves. The antihistamine that also puts you to sleep also makes you groggy during the day. I had to cut the antihistamine pills in half but then the itching would return in the middle of the night.

When I added over-the-counter Benadryl, my vision became distorted and I developed a phenomenon called "visual snow." It was eerie and took me two days to figure out which pills were causing this.

The steroid pills provide relief, but if taken at bedtime, they made by heart race, and then how do you get to sleep? The steroids make you quite irritable.

By now I was at my wits end and my wife’s uncle said he got poison oak when he was a child and couldn’t shake it when an uncle drove him to the beach and the salty ocean water eradicated the problem.

OK, time for a trip to the beach. The water at Huntington Beach was warm that afternoon. Forty minutes and my rash subsided somewhat. That night I was back to applying topical remedies and taking the antihistamine pill.

Now what? I had to drive from the Los Angeles area where I live to Las Vegas one day for a business meeting and I noticed my rash was in remission and not itchy. But when I returned home, it came back with a vengeance. Cleaning crews were called in. I didn’t know what to think.

In my fourth week of this ordeal I called a friend to mull over everything. He referred me to Tom Ogren’s articles and book on allergy-free gardening and the fact that once sensitized to poison oak, urushiol oil could be re-transmitted to me by pets, on outdoor chairs where animals like squirrels could deposit it, by airborne pollen, and even other allergy-provoking plants like ragweed and sumac could pose problems. That might explain why my rash subsided when I was out of town.

My friend later e-mailed to advise me to avoid nuts like cashews and pistachios that are in the same family as poison oak. Duh, my wife had bought me a bag of pastry made with pistachios that I had with my morning coffee. There were cashews in a trail mix that I occasionally consumed by the handful. Yikes!

I went into remission the moment I stopped eating nuts. I assume soy and other common allergenic foods, like peanuts, shellfish, eggs, should also be avoided. No one had said, once sensitized, foods could exacerbate my skin rash. The advice was welcomed, late as it was.

I wonder if most unexplained skin rashes are caused by urushiol oil, one of the most toxic agents on the planet. It is said standing armies could be totally incapacitated by this toxin.

Heed my advice, don’t touch those leaves with three leaflets, but also don’t even go near them, and if you suspect you have, go home and dispose of your clothes outside your home and wash in the shower. If you wander off the trail when hiking, like many hikers do to relieve their full bladder, you are at greater risk of toxic urushiol oil being deposited on your skin or clothing. I’d carry some of the hand cleaner with me when hiking.

Bill Sardi [send him mail] is a frequent writer on health and political topics. His health writings can be found at He is the author of You Don’t Have To Be Afraid Of Cancer Anymore.

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