Who will win, man or hogweed?

  • 2001-08-02
  • Rita Bubina
RIGA - Every year between 10 and 12 people are hospitalized at the State Burns Treatment Center after suffering chemical burns caused by the sap of the giant hogweed. This year seven people have already been injured and hospitalized thanks to the plant's powerful juices.

One victim had 38 percent of his body burned. He was released from the center last week. Another patient, having burns on 21 percent of his body, was released under the supervision of his family doctor.

"Usually the first victims appear in the spring when people try to destroy the sprouts of the dangerous plant. This year in spring there was only one victim, but in July six more were injured," said Monika Savicka, director of the burns center.

The total number of people who have suffered burns from the plant is unknown as the center treats only the most severe cases.

"Burns from the giant hogweed are some of the most unpleasant. The immense pain in the burned area is also followed by a strong itch," said Savicka.

As one of the victims confessed to the newspaper Diena , "If a child had to suffer such pain, I don't think he could manage."

Andris Lejins, manager of the division of agriculture at the Skriveri Center of Science explained, "If people touch the plant, its sap permeates the skin and causes chemical burns similar to those caused by fire."

"The burns result in blisters and swelling in the affected areas, added Savicka. "The only difference between these burns and those from a fire is that after a fire only the upper layers of skin are usually damaged and have to be removed. But after a chemical burn the deeper layers are affected, too."

To avoid such an unpleasant experience Latvian experts are advising people to keep away from these dangerous plants, or to wear clothes that cover the entire body. However, the sap is so strong that it in some cases it has soaked through dense materials to cause serious burns.

Lejins added, "Clothes also protect burned skin from sunshine. Experiments have proven that sunshine intensifies and deepens the wound.

"After a burn from hogweed sap has healed, one should also avoid direct sunlight and extreme cold, as the new skin is very sensitive to that."

Savicka said: "In many cases people know perfectly well how to protect themselves from the plant and wear the necessary attire. There are also stories where people start a battle with the weed, but only one can win: either man or plant. Most often it's the plant."

These dangerous four-meter-tall plants were brought to Latvia from Russia in the 1970s and were supposed to supply cheap forage for cattle.

Cattle can eat the plant without any damage to their system.

Because most of the time people had to handle these plants in the process of making food for cows, the idea didn't catch on and the weeds spread throughout Latvia from the eastern region of Madona where they were originally sowed.

The Ministry of Agriculture could not provide any exact data about the spread of the plants. They cover mostly uncultivated areas or wasteland near houses, along roads and along the banks of ditches.

To cope with the problem, the Ministry of Agriculture has posted a competition for the best giant hogweed eradication project.

"The project will be evaluated for three criteria: agronomic effectiveness, economic effectiveness and correspondence to environmental requirements," said Janis Sietinsons, director of the Department for the Cultivation of Plants at the ministry.

"Different areas require different solutions. The banks of ditches cannot be reached by heavy machinery. Some places are beside wetlands, which restricts the use of pesticides," he added.

He could not specify the number of projects handed in, nor the sum needed for the cultivation of one hectare of wasteland covered with the menace.

"The participants have until Aug. 6. A team of specialists will evaluate every project," said Sietinsons.

Sietinsons avoided mentioning a sum for the grand prize. Instead he said that there would be three awards including prize money.

However, Latvian giant hogweed specialists have different attitudes toward the project. Scientist Ivars Holms has refused to participate. He thinks that the reward for his work would be too low.

Lejins, on the other hand, has decided to work out a competitive project. In his mind, an effective plan would involve the combined method of using pesticides, mowing the plants and plowing the land.

"It will take quite a lot of money and time to destroy the giant hogweed completely. We may have to wait up to three years for a positive result," he shrugged.

"I agree that informing society is one way to avoid serious damage, but at the moment we haven't planned any special campaigns. Projects are the first thing we are considering. Besides, at the moment the media are doing a great job of informing society about the plant," said Sietinsons.