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06/28/2006

Danger! Flourishing Vines

We in New Jersey accept the fact that our state is the butt of
many jokes, typically related to corruption, the ambiance
surrounding the New Jersey Turnpike and the like. Currently,
our lawmakers and governor can’t agree on how to close a $5
billion deficit in the budget and our state government may shut
down. Even Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) contains
sly comments about our lawmakers. In the Newscripts section of
the June 5 issue, Rick Mullin noted that some years ago the New
Jersey State Assembly failed to agree on Bruce Springsteen’s
“Born to Run” as the state song. The Assembly also didn’t agree
to a proposal that the tomato should be the state vegetable.
Mullin says the song was essentially about getting out of New
Jersey “by any means possible” and the tomato is actually a fruit!

Last month, our lawmakers did agree on something. On May 22,
they proclaimed “Downer soil” to be the Official State Soil. “All
hail Downer dirt, the finest in New Jersey” was a headline in the
May 20 Philadelphia Inquirer anticipating the passage of the
legislation. The article began: “We always knew New Jersey
was a dirty place.” Not willing to take these slights lying down, I
visited the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Web site and
found that New Jersey isn’t the only state that has legislated an
official state dirt. Apparently, every state has a state soil and 20
states have designated “Official State Soils”. (I don’t know if the
USDA entry included NJ; if not, there are 21.) The USDA
asserts that these official soils deserve just as much prestige as a
state flower or a state tree (NJ’s is the red oak). But couldn’t we
at least have renamed Jersey’s soil to be an “Upper” soil?

Downer soil is found primarily in sandy coastal plains of the type
in South Jersey. It has a loamy grayish-brown surface layer with
a porous sponge-like quality. The soil here in northern Jersey
does not seem to be the Downer type. It tends to be hard and
rocks in the sand traps of one nearby county course are not
uncommon. Last week, I was golfing there with my buddy Tony
and questioned his judgment in attempting a shot between two
trees, likening it to Phil using his driver on the 18th at the US
Open. Tony’s shot ended up in the woods but I refused to help
find the ball when I spotted a healthy stand of Toxicodendron
radicans, which seems to grow in unofficial soils. Only the day
before, I had coffee at the mall after our morning walk and was
told not to sit across from a fellow walker who had come in close
contact with T. radicans, also known as poison ivy. His case was
so bad that his eyes had been nearly swollen shut.

I was reminded of my own experience many years ago. As
chairman of an environmental group at Bell Labs, I was involved
in a project to install culverts along an extended walking path in
our area. My co-chairman and I went out one Saturday to
determine how to instruct our group of volunteers to handle the
digging and installing of the culverts the next weekend. George
and I bit off more than we could chew. Those culverts were big
and heavy! I was exhausted and sat down to rest. I was wearing
shorts and didn’t realize I was sitting on poison ivy! The next
day I was not a pretty picture!

Last week, the media headlined a “startling” conclusion - global
warming is real, the conclusion reached by a scientific panel
created to advise Congress on the subject. The graphical data
printed in our Star-Ledger looked to me to be the same data that
we’ve discussed in past columns. Hopefully, our lawmakers will
pay attention and act - banning SUVs would be a good start.
And TV commercials such as the one featuring Derek Jeter and
Spike Lee trying to outdo each other in burning up the road
certainly don’t help to encourage gas-saving strategies!

Which brings me back to poison ivy and its cousins such as
poison oak and poison sumac. A prime cause of global warming
is the CO2 we’re putting into our atmosphere. In recent years,
scientists have found that, in forests around the Earth, woody
vines have been flourishing, not only killing trees but also
preventing normal growth of new trees. T. radicans is a woody
vine and for six years researchers from various institutions have
been carrying out field trials in North Carolina in the Duke
University FACE (Free-Air CO2 Enrichment) experiment. In the
FACE experiment, portions of forest have been cordoned off.
Some sections have been allowed to grow freely while in other
sections carbon dioxide has been piped in to raise the ambient
level of about 370 microliters per liter (let’s call it parts per
million, ppm) to 570 ppm. The 570-ppm figure is expected to be
the concentration of CO2 by the middle of this century.

In a paper published this month in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, Jacqueline Mohan of Woods
Hole and her colleagues from Duke, the USDA and West
Virginia University present the results of the FACE experiment
to date. The results are not good for us 80 percent of the
population who are sensitive to poison ivy. The dry weight of
poison ivy plants in the plots with the higher amount of CO2
averaged 8.1 grams while those in the plots with today’s CO2
levels averaged only 5.0 grams. The added CO2 resulted in a
150% increase in the weight of the poison ivy, twice the 75%
increase for the ivy grown under today’s 370 ppm CO2.

That’s only part of the story. The bad actor in poison ivy is the
yellowish oily sap known as urushiol. Urushiol contains
saturated and unsaturated compounds. In our diets, unsaturated
fats are better for us than saturated fats. However, in the poison
ivy world it’s the opposite – it’s the unsaturated stuff that’s the
strongest allergen. The unsaturated form of urushiol increased
by 153% in the enhanced CO2 environment while the saturated
form was down 61%. So, not only can we expect more poison
ivy but it’s also going to be significantly more potent. Today in
the United States there are more than 350,000 cases a year of
human contact dermatitis caused by T. radicans. With poison ivy
spreading and growing more vigorously worldwide, there’s
going to be a lot of scratching going on.

If you’re among those who are not sensitive to poison ivy, don’t
be too smug. A C&EN article by Ivan Amato in the June 5 issue
cites a study on ragweed by Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical
School. Epstein and his colleagues have grown ragweed in
greenhouses under CO2-enriched air. They found the ragweed
stalks grew 10% larger and these larger plants spewed forth 60%
more pollen. If you’re not scratching, you’ll be sneezing and
coughing!

I should point out that the 370-ppm figure for CO2 used in the
FACE study is a simplification. Actually, during the six-year
study, mean global CO2 levels rose from less than 365 ppm to
375 ppm. If you’re mathematically inclined, you might say,
“Hey, if the CO2 level rose roughly 10 ppm in 6 years, by mid-
century it’s going to be about 450-460 ppm, not the 570 ppm in
the FACE experiment.” I assume that the higher number is
based on the reasonable assumption that nations like China and
India are going to join the U.S. in spewing ever-increasing
amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere as we and they embrace the
“good life”. With all that urushiol and pollen hanging around it
might not be so good.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-06/28/2006-      
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Dr. Bortrum

06/28/2006

Danger! Flourishing Vines

We in New Jersey accept the fact that our state is the butt of
many jokes, typically related to corruption, the ambiance
surrounding the New Jersey Turnpike and the like. Currently,
our lawmakers and governor can’t agree on how to close a $5
billion deficit in the budget and our state government may shut
down. Even Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) contains
sly comments about our lawmakers. In the Newscripts section of
the June 5 issue, Rick Mullin noted that some years ago the New
Jersey State Assembly failed to agree on Bruce Springsteen’s
“Born to Run” as the state song. The Assembly also didn’t agree
to a proposal that the tomato should be the state vegetable.
Mullin says the song was essentially about getting out of New
Jersey “by any means possible” and the tomato is actually a fruit!

Last month, our lawmakers did agree on something. On May 22,
they proclaimed “Downer soil” to be the Official State Soil. “All
hail Downer dirt, the finest in New Jersey” was a headline in the
May 20 Philadelphia Inquirer anticipating the passage of the
legislation. The article began: “We always knew New Jersey
was a dirty place.” Not willing to take these slights lying down, I
visited the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Web site and
found that New Jersey isn’t the only state that has legislated an
official state dirt. Apparently, every state has a state soil and 20
states have designated “Official State Soils”. (I don’t know if the
USDA entry included NJ; if not, there are 21.) The USDA
asserts that these official soils deserve just as much prestige as a
state flower or a state tree (NJ’s is the red oak). But couldn’t we
at least have renamed Jersey’s soil to be an “Upper” soil?

Downer soil is found primarily in sandy coastal plains of the type
in South Jersey. It has a loamy grayish-brown surface layer with
a porous sponge-like quality. The soil here in northern Jersey
does not seem to be the Downer type. It tends to be hard and
rocks in the sand traps of one nearby county course are not
uncommon. Last week, I was golfing there with my buddy Tony
and questioned his judgment in attempting a shot between two
trees, likening it to Phil using his driver on the 18th at the US
Open. Tony’s shot ended up in the woods but I refused to help
find the ball when I spotted a healthy stand of Toxicodendron
radicans, which seems to grow in unofficial soils. Only the day
before, I had coffee at the mall after our morning walk and was
told not to sit across from a fellow walker who had come in close
contact with T. radicans, also known as poison ivy. His case was
so bad that his eyes had been nearly swollen shut.

I was reminded of my own experience many years ago. As
chairman of an environmental group at Bell Labs, I was involved
in a project to install culverts along an extended walking path in
our area. My co-chairman and I went out one Saturday to
determine how to instruct our group of volunteers to handle the
digging and installing of the culverts the next weekend. George
and I bit off more than we could chew. Those culverts were big
and heavy! I was exhausted and sat down to rest. I was wearing
shorts and didn’t realize I was sitting on poison ivy! The next
day I was not a pretty picture!

Last week, the media headlined a “startling” conclusion - global
warming is real, the conclusion reached by a scientific panel
created to advise Congress on the subject. The graphical data
printed in our Star-Ledger looked to me to be the same data that
we’ve discussed in past columns. Hopefully, our lawmakers will
pay attention and act - banning SUVs would be a good start.
And TV commercials such as the one featuring Derek Jeter and
Spike Lee trying to outdo each other in burning up the road
certainly don’t help to encourage gas-saving strategies!

Which brings me back to poison ivy and its cousins such as
poison oak and poison sumac. A prime cause of global warming
is the CO2 we’re putting into our atmosphere. In recent years,
scientists have found that, in forests around the Earth, woody
vines have been flourishing, not only killing trees but also
preventing normal growth of new trees. T. radicans is a woody
vine and for six years researchers from various institutions have
been carrying out field trials in North Carolina in the Duke
University FACE (Free-Air CO2 Enrichment) experiment. In the
FACE experiment, portions of forest have been cordoned off.
Some sections have been allowed to grow freely while in other
sections carbon dioxide has been piped in to raise the ambient
level of about 370 microliters per liter (let’s call it parts per
million, ppm) to 570 ppm. The 570-ppm figure is expected to be
the concentration of CO2 by the middle of this century.

In a paper published this month in the Proceedings of the
National Academy of Sciences, Jacqueline Mohan of Woods
Hole and her colleagues from Duke, the USDA and West
Virginia University present the results of the FACE experiment
to date. The results are not good for us 80 percent of the
population who are sensitive to poison ivy. The dry weight of
poison ivy plants in the plots with the higher amount of CO2
averaged 8.1 grams while those in the plots with today’s CO2
levels averaged only 5.0 grams. The added CO2 resulted in a
150% increase in the weight of the poison ivy, twice the 75%
increase for the ivy grown under today’s 370 ppm CO2.

That’s only part of the story. The bad actor in poison ivy is the
yellowish oily sap known as urushiol. Urushiol contains
saturated and unsaturated compounds. In our diets, unsaturated
fats are better for us than saturated fats. However, in the poison
ivy world it’s the opposite – it’s the unsaturated stuff that’s the
strongest allergen. The unsaturated form of urushiol increased
by 153% in the enhanced CO2 environment while the saturated
form was down 61%. So, not only can we expect more poison
ivy but it’s also going to be significantly more potent. Today in
the United States there are more than 350,000 cases a year of
human contact dermatitis caused by T. radicans. With poison ivy
spreading and growing more vigorously worldwide, there’s
going to be a lot of scratching going on.

If you’re among those who are not sensitive to poison ivy, don’t
be too smug. A C&EN article by Ivan Amato in the June 5 issue
cites a study on ragweed by Paul Epstein of Harvard Medical
School. Epstein and his colleagues have grown ragweed in
greenhouses under CO2-enriched air. They found the ragweed
stalks grew 10% larger and these larger plants spewed forth 60%
more pollen. If you’re not scratching, you’ll be sneezing and
coughing!

I should point out that the 370-ppm figure for CO2 used in the
FACE study is a simplification. Actually, during the six-year
study, mean global CO2 levels rose from less than 365 ppm to
375 ppm. If you’re mathematically inclined, you might say,
“Hey, if the CO2 level rose roughly 10 ppm in 6 years, by mid-
century it’s going to be about 450-460 ppm, not the 570 ppm in
the FACE experiment.” I assume that the higher number is
based on the reasonable assumption that nations like China and
India are going to join the U.S. in spewing ever-increasing
amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere as we and they embrace the
“good life”. With all that urushiol and pollen hanging around it
might not be so good.

Allen F. Bortrum