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Parents Claim Bald Hill Poison Oak Outbreak, Officials Perplexed

San Anselmo resident says about 20 people have had poison oak symptoms and nobody knows who posted a warning sign.

Local residents are claiming that a fallen tree in the Bald Hill area might have kicked up a rash of poison oak, with a number of people ending up in the emergency room over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Karen Hege of San Anselmo contacted Patch to report her son’s ill-fated bout of poison oak.

“He woke up at 4 a.m. with his face, neck, and lips swollen and his eyes swollen shut,” Hege wrote in an email. “We ended up in the ER early that morning but they could not figure out what he was having an allergic reaction to. He was basically in bed for 4 days on various medicines.”

Hege said she soon learned that about 20 other people came down with similar symptoms after following the same hike from San Anselmo to Bald Hill. At least one other victim also wound up in the emergency room.

“It seems that when the tree fell it landed on poison oak bushes and the oils from the poison oak became airborne, thus causing a reaction on any part of the body that was not covered with clothing,” Hege reported.

Probably not, says Marin County Parks Deputy Director Ron Miska. “It doesn’t happen that way," he said. "You have to have direct contact with it.”

Most online references back up Miska, saying that poison oak is only an airborne threat if it’s being burned. Hege agreed, having conducting her own research, but still looked at the symptoms, evidence and number of victims as being suspicious.

Miska said he’d contact Hege to get more details and turn it over to the ranger staff to check out the fallen tree presented any possible threat of poison oak to hikers.

It was uncertain at press time under whose jurisdiction the tree lies. The Marin Municipal Water District owns land in the area, but spokesperson Libby Pischel said her agency had not heard about the incident. Miska reported the same thing from the county’s perspective. San Anselmo City Manager Debbie Stutsman said she hadn’t heard about the incident either. The Town of Ross also owns adjacent property.

Miska, Pischel and Stutsman said their agencies had nothing to do with a warning sign that had been posted telling hikers to steer clear of the area.

Poison oak and its eastern counterpart poison ivy are two of the most notoriously painful plants in North America. Each year thousands of people are afflicted with moderate to severe dermatitis from touching the foliage of these plants. It is the most common allergy in the country, claiming half the population.

Betty Pancakes December 01, 2012 at 03:40 PM
YIKES, I'm itching just READING this story (scratch, scratch, itch, itch). I have no idea who posted this sign (or who typed it, for that matter), but I think it's a good think that he, she or they did ... right? I mean, if somebody posted this on Patch, it would be good cuz you're informing the public, like it's the neighborly thing to do? In any event, I'm going to avoid this area like the plague 2day!
Jessica Mullins (Editor) December 01, 2012 at 07:11 PM
This is entirely hearsay, but i've had two people tell me they suspect the outbreak was caused by poison oak vines (that have lost their leaves) that are on the fallen tree everyone had to climb through to continue on the trail.
Chris Enbom December 02, 2012 at 01:50 AM
I got it and my two kids who climbed through the tree are on prednisone for a severe reaction as well after climbing through the fallen tree. Every single person we know who did the hike last weekend contracted sever poison oak.
Karen Hege December 02, 2012 at 07:57 AM
Having heard mutiple explinations about the possible causes of this poison oak outbreak (including the air borne theory), I did my own research on poison oak. I discovered that it can only become airborn if burned. A very small percent of people who are highly allergic to poison oak can have symptoms like my sons with severe facial, lip and eye swelling and these symptoms can appear soon after exposure. I am still hearing about people (and entire families) who came down with severe poison oak (including the swelling) after hiking in that area around Thanksgiving. I talked with someone from the Marin County Parks and informed them of the mutiple cases of poison oak before they send anyone out to remove the tree in hopes of preventing any more cases. I don't know who posted the sign but it is probably a good idea to inform people of the potential hazard on the trail.
Sandra Baker December 02, 2012 at 09:20 PM
It is true that the allergenic oil of poison oak/ivy, that is in the resin of the plant, does not go airborne unless the plant is burned. The oil does not degrade with heat, and goes up on soot and ashes and can land on people. That being said, it seems like folks out there need to know how to positively identify the plant. I devised a simple system to know if a plant is not poison oak, or if it is for sure the allergenic plant. You can download a free identification pdf (no strings attached) from the home page of my website. It is actually the first chapter of my book. www.poisonoakandpoisonivy.com
Sandra Baker December 02, 2012 at 09:33 PM
Perhaps I should continue on a bit, because this theory of "airborne" seems to be a bit out of control. The sign is completely wrong. First of all, the oil is not volatile, that is, it does not evaporate into the air like, for example, lavender oil. The oil is not in the pollen during the spring either. The pollen is not designed to leave the flower, and cannot float in the air anyway. My identification system, mentioned above, delves into winter identification. It is possible to learn the way a leafless stem looks like and easily notice it among other plants if you are around it for a while. I am not saying all this from internet theories, I researched heavily for three years from clinical studies etc for my book on the subject.
Life in the Bubble December 03, 2012 at 05:48 AM
Thanks for some sanity here. The claim that 20 people sought treatment at hospitals is probably totally bogus fearmongering. Many people don't recognize poison oak in the winter without leaves. It also often looks like a leafless vine, and often wraps around trees and spreads into the canopy. If you are sensitive to it, and climb over a downed tree wrapped in poison oak, you may be in for a good case of it. A couple minutes with some gloves, pruners and a small saw, and a bottle of Tecnu could mitigate the PO without all the anonymous hysteria. It could be there for months before a trail crew gets out there. A little vounteer work is good...
Sandra Hamilton December 14, 2012 at 02:52 PM
I got poison oak after hiking through the tree too. It's covered in thick vines and I grabbed onto one to steady myself as I climbed through the crown of the tree. I didn't end up in the hospital, but I already had drugs at hand from previous outbreaks. Anyway, it was very bad!
Kevin Moore December 14, 2012 at 05:27 PM
Looking at the photo of the tree across the trail, it seems obvious that people got poison oak by crawling over the tree. While wrong in method of transfer, the warning was correct in alerting people to the poison oak problem at the tree. Sometimes people don't recognize the poison oak vines when they grow up along tree. I've seen the vines so thick, they look like small trees. Out in West Marin, there is what I call "Nuclear Poison Oak", the rash from it is really really bad. Much worse than from poison oak I've had from other areas in the Bay Area.
Fred Liebes December 20, 2012 at 10:28 PM
Poison oak vines were entwined among the tree branches, and growing on the hillside on both sides of the road. If you tried to get through the tree, you contacted poison oak, minus the leaves, which are absent this time of year. I climbed through the "poison oak tree"with two friends around Dec 5. We had come up Bald Hill from Phoenix Lake, and, not wanting to retrace our route, chose to risk it. It was obvious to me the area was covered with the vines, but none of us were willing to go back. I'm not really susceptible to catching poison oak, so I wasn't too worried. I guess my friends were in denial. Needless to say, a few days later, one friend went to the doctor with a bad case, and my other friend chose home treatment. It made me itch just to hear about it. People have cleared a path through the tree, or cut some branches. What remains on the ground under foot is pure poison oak vines! I wouldn't walk through there on a bet! I trust the local powers-that-be are planning removal of the hazard, as this is really a public health issue. It seems to be a popular route.

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