Toxic Ter­rain

How to avoid Mother Na­ture’s deadly de­fenses

Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Michael D’angona

Na­ture is un­ques­tion­ably beau­ti­ful. From lus­cious forests to flow­ing streams to abun­dant and di­verse wildlife, the out­doors of­fers ma­jes­tic and breath­tak­ing vis­tas. How­ever, un­der­neath the seem­ingly end­less fa­cade of colors, scents and panoramic views lies a dark side.

Na­ture doesn’t ex­ist solely for hu­mans’ plea­sure. The na­tives found in any en­vi­ron­ment have a tri-part ob­jec­tive: to sur­vive, thrive and repli­cate. To ac­com­plish this, Mother Na­ture has en­dowed many of her denizens with the means to do so in the form of venom, poi­sons and other toxic sub­stances. To the un­e­d­u­cated, th­ese dan­gers are ei­ther well-hid­den or to­tally unknown, which cre­ates po­ten­tial prob­lems for hik­ers, hun­ters, an­glers or any out­doorsper­son.

Dan­gers await un­sus­pect­ing vic­tims, but there are ways to avoid them, and there are steps to take if you be­come af­flicted by one of na­ture’s toxic el­e­ments.

Na­tive Res­i­dents

No mat­ter what en­vi­ron­ment you choose to ex­plore, the odds that you’ll en­counter ven­omous or poi­sonous an­i­mals are bet­ter than av­er­age. But first, what’s the dif­fer­ence? Thought to be in­ter­change­able by most, the terms “ven­omous” and “poi­sonous” have dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent mean­ings. A ven­omous an­i­mal de­liv­ers its tox­ins us­ing spe­cial­ized body fea­tures. The venom glands and fangs of a snake, or the pin­cers or stingers of in­sects, are two ex­am­ples. In this case, eat­ing a ven­omous snake’s meat (which, by the way, is very lean and full of protein) won’t cause you to get sick or suf­fer from any other toxic symp­toms. A poi­sonous an­i­mal, on the other hand, is char­ac­ter­ized by hav­ing deadly tox­ins flow­ing through­out its en­tire body. Eat­ing its meat or even touch­ing its outer sur­face can cause you to be­come vi­o­lently sick or worse.

Ven­omous snakes can be found through­out the world and aren’t al­ways easy to spot. Like most other snakes, they of­ten blend into their sur­round­ings and at­tack when star­tled or dis­turbed. They can also ap­pear in your camp­site and nes­tle into your gear or sleep­ing bag.

A di­rect strike from a ven­omous snake can have di­verse af­fects upon a hu­man depend­ing upon the species. From pain at the bite site to nau­sea and vom­it­ing to ex­treme symp­toms such as numb­ness of the face and

limbs and drop in blood pres­sure, snakebite must be tended to quickly. If not, se­vere, lifechang­ing re­sults may oc­cur.

The cane toad, a poi­sonous am­phib­ian found through­out North and South Amer­ica, se­cretes milky venom through its skin. Any­thing that bites or touches it will suc­cumb to its harm­ful tox­ins. Avoid brightly col­ored am­phib­ians; their color usu­ally in­di­cates that they’re dan­ger­ous to touch, let alone eat, due to tox­ins found within their outer skin.

Other an­i­mals dan­ger­ous to man in­clude the platy­pus (found in Aus­tralia and neigh­bor­ing re­gions) and the puffer fish (lo­cated in warm wa­ters through­out the world). A punc­ture from a platy­pus’ spur causes ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain, yet is rarely fa­tal, while the puffer fish has enough tox­ins to eas­ily kill an adult hu­man.

Creepy Crawlers

In­sects, bugs, creepy crawlies, what­ever you call them not only can be a nui­sance, but also a haz­ard to your over­all health. Al­though tech­ni­cally in dif­fer­ent sci­en­tific cat­e­gories, for the sake of keep­ing it sim­ple and fa­mil­iar to most peo­ple, in­sects, spi­ders, scor­pi­ons and cen­tipedes will all be grouped to­gether as “bugs.”

Al­though there are thou­sands of spi­der species in North Amer­ica, only about four are con­sid­ered in­cred­i­bly dan­ger­ous to hu­mans, but even then, deaths are rare. The recluse and widow va­ri­eties are two spi­der groups that you should al­ways avoid. The bite, or more specif­i­cally the venom, of a black widow is widely known to cause sear­ing, in­tense pain. A black widow’s neu­ro­toxin is up to 15 times greater than a rat­tlesnake’s, and at­tacks an un­lucky vic­tim’s ner­vous sys­tem, caus­ing nau­sea, vom­it­ing, headaches

and hy­per­ten­sion. The brown recluse, on the other hand, de­stroys tis­sue and causes cu­ta­neous in­juries. Both bites can be treated with an­tivenin to coun­ter­act the venom.

When hunger strikes, bugs can be a source of protein (in fact, pound for pound, in­sects of­fer more protein than red meat). How­ever, there are a few guide­lines to fol­low to avoid a nasty re­ac­tion from eat­ing the wrong type of bug. Hairy or brightly col­ored bugs should be ig­nored. Like am­phib­ians, their colors warn that they shouldn’t be con­sumed. Eat­ing such an or­gan­ism may cause mi­nor symp­toms like nau­sea, vom­it­ing and stom­ach cramps.

Also, avoid ticks, moths, flies and mos­qui­toes. They may not di­rectly af­fect you with tox­ins, but they might be car­ri­ers for many dis­eases that can take you out of the fight fast and some­times per­ma­nently. Dis­eases such as malaria, yel­low fever, Zika virus and en­cephali­tis are a few mosquito­trans­mit­ted dis­eases. Due to their size com­pared to hu­mans, most poi­sonous in­sects do lit­tle harm if ingested, but if you’re alone in the wild, you don’t need added stress or ir­ri­tat­ing ail­ments slow­ing you down.

“Avoid brightly col­ored am­phib­ians; their color usu­ally in­di­cates that they’re dan­ger­ous to touch, let alone eat ...”

Un­for­giv­ing Flora

Veg­e­ta­tion falls into two dis­tinct cat­e­gories when dis­cussing tox­ins and how they af­fect the hu­man body. The first cat­e­gory is the dan­ger of in­gest­ing a poi­sonous plant, and the other is your body’s re­ac­tion to touch­ing, hold­ing or even brush­ing up against a poi­sonous plant’s stem, leaves or flow­ers.

Hunger can make peo­ple do things they nor­mally wouldn’t, and vig­or­ously eat­ing plant ma­te­rial as if it’s a crisp salad may ini­tially seem OK. While some for­est greens are safe to con­sume, eat­ing one or two poi­sonous va­ri­eties in your mix could be highly detri­men­tal, caus­ing var­i­ous

dan­ger­ous symp­toms in­clud­ing cramps, nau­sea, vom­it­ing, diar­rhea, headaches and hal­lu­ci­na­tions. More se­ri­ous symp­toms in­clude de­pressed heart­beat and res­pi­ra­tion, un­con­scious­ness, coma and even death.

Iden­ti­fy­ing such plants isn’t easy and re­quires much study and field ex­pe­ri­ence. If you’re not 100% sure, don’t take chances! Ad­di­tion­ally, when you spot wild mush­rooms for a pos­si­ble meal, keep walk­ing. Mush­rooms can be in­cred­i­bly poi­sonous and are ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to iden­tify, so un­less you’re car­ry­ing a guide or are an expert, don’t eat wild mush­rooms.

As a form of self-de­fense, some plant con­tact can cause your skin to blush, itch un­bear­ably and burn as if on fire. Poi­son ivy, poi­son oak and poi­son sumac are ex­am­ples of th­ese in­cred­i­bly ir­ri­tat­ing toxic plants. Their oils, if not washed out of your clothes, can re­main ac­tive for years, caus­ing fu­ture out­breaks when you least ex­pect them. The sting­ing net­tle, com­monly found through­out North Amer­ica, uses tiny hy­po­der­mic­nee­dle-like hairs along its stem and leaves to trans­mit its chem­i­cals into your skin, caus­ing a very dis­tinct and painful burn­ing sen­sa­tion. It’s very im­por­tant to cover bare skin while trekking through thick veg­e­ta­tion. Even though you may be able to iden­tify th­ese toxic plants on their own, when they’re in­ter­twined with vines, low-hang­ing tree branches or thick grasses, they be­come vir­tu­ally in­vis­i­ble.

Crys­tal Clear

De­hy­dra­tion is a top con­cern for out­doors­peo­ple. Carry your own wa­ter sup­ply as your first line of de­fense when fight­ing thirst. How­ever, your stock can never be lim­it­less. Ab­nor­mally high tem­per­a­tures, un­ex­pected trav­el­ing com­pan­ions or un­fore­seen ac­ci­dents can cause your sup­ply to dwin­dle quickly. When sup­plies run low, a hu­man’s nat­u­ral in­stinct is to turn to na­ture’s sources: lakes, rivers and streams.

Crisp, fresh-look­ing run­ning wa­ter should be thirst-quench­ing and safe to drink, cor­rect? Wrong! Al­though you can­not phys­i­cally see the harm­ful com­po­nents in an outdoor wa­ter source, they are there and ready to trans­form your out­ing into a gas­tro­nomic night­mare. Micro­organ­isms, viruses, fungi and bac­te­ria all can be present in flow­ing wa­ter that looks safe to drink. Flow­ing doesn’t equal fresh. A dead an­i­mal car­cass could be lo­cated just up­stream, al­low­ing de­cay­ing ma­te­ri­als to flow into your wait­ing drink­ing bot­tle. Fe­cal mat­ter from an­i­mals, un­seen by you, could also be scat­tered nearby, con­tam­i­nat­ing the wa­ter and caus­ing you to in­gest harm­ful bac­te­ria.

Micro­organ­isms can wreak havoc on your gas­troin­testi­nal sys­tem, caus­ing diar­rhea, vom­it­ing, high fever and ab­dom­i­nal pain. Los­ing fluid will fur­ther de­hy­drate you,

“While some for­est greens are safe to con­sume, eat­ing one or two poi­sonous va­ri­eties in your mix could be highly detri­men­tal …”

cre­at­ing a vi­cious cy­cle that, if left un­treated, could cause full or­gan shut­down and ul­ti­mately death. From cholera and E. coli to cy­clospo­ri­a­sis and gi­a­r­dia­sis to hepati­tis A and po­liomyeli­tis, the list of wa­ter­borne pathogens is long.

The sim­plest way to avoid be­ing af­fected by tainted wa­ter is to boil it. A rolling boil main­tained for five min­utes will kill harm­ful pathogens and al­low you to sip safely. Fil­ter­ing straws, pu­rifi­ca­tion tablets and ul­tra­vi­o­let light de­vices can be car­ried and used for wa­ter pu­rifi­ca­tion, too. Re­mem­ber, only when you’re fac­ing cer­tain death from de­hy­dra­tion should you even con­sider drink­ing un­treated wa­ter. All other times, pu­rify it.

Know Some Ba­sics

Not every­one who ven­tures into the back­coun­try is an expert on sur­vival, edi­ble plants or an­i­mal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. The week­end war­rior, the fam­ily out on a camp­ing trip or school­child­ren on a field trip all can con­tact un­seen tox­ins. But, with some ba­sic knowl­edge of both your sur­round­ings and some what-if sce­nario pre­cau­tions, you can en­joy the out­doors less fear­fully.

(top) Poi­sonous mush­rooms can cause se­vere harm if ingested. Nau­sea, vom­it­ing, diar­rhea and ab­dom­i­nal cramps will take you out of ac­tion un­til the ir­ri­tant is ex­pelled.

(right) Puffer fish, to put it lightly, are ex­tremely poi­sonous, con­tain­ing enough toxin to kill 30 adult hu­mans, and there is no known an­ti­dote.

(op­po­site) Cane toads (named be­cause they were used to erad­i­cate pests from sug­ar­cane fields) se­crete a milky white toxin in their skin used to de­fend against preda­tors. PHOTOS BY BIGSTOCK

(above) Rhubarb is delicious if you only eat the stems. The large green leaves con­tain poi­son that could cause a burn­ing sen­sa­tion in your mouth, eye pain, nau­sea, stom­ach pain and vom­it­ing; how­ever, death is ex­tremely rare. (op­po­site, top) Brightly col­ored furry in­sects should be avoided at all costs. Their unique ap­pear­ance is a warn­ing sign that you and any other preda­tors should stay away. (op­po­site, be­low) Walk­ing through the woods can star­tle snakes rest­ing in the sun. Ex­posed an­kles are prime spots for toxic snakebites. PHOTOS BY BIGSTOCK

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