Environmental Hazards – Poisonous Plants

By: Taylor Schechter – Health, Safety & Environmental Manager

As the warmer weather comes, there are many additional environmental hazards to be aware of. Knowledge is the most important defense against any hazard. If you are able to recognize the environmental hazards you can protect yourself from anything you may encounter when working outside.

It is important to identify the specific hazards that vary by state. Here in Pennsylvania, we are exposed to three types of poisonous plants. Here’s how to identify them:

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy have a few different appearances. Look for jagged edges, a smooth shiny surface, and a reddish color. The rash looks like patches, streaks of red, and raised blisters. Wash the exposed skin or clothing immediately to prevent spreading.

Poison Oak








Poison Oak leaves are fuzzy and green, most grow in clusters of 3. Many have tan berries. Leaves are duller green than poison ivy and usually more distinctly lobed or toothed.

Poison Sumac

Grows near standing water and swampy areas. Each leaf cluster has 7 to 13 smooth edged leaflets. The leaves of this plant have an oval or oblong shape, tapering to a wedge or point on each end It can grow 5-20 feet in height.

All three of these plants contain the chemical substance known as urushiol. This chemical is what causes the itchy, blistery rash to appear on your skin. It’s important to remember that this substance is just a chemical, not a virus or bacteria. That means once you’ve washed it off of your clothes and skin, the rash is no longer contagious. However, until then you can leave traces of this substance on everyday household objects and spread the rash by absent-mindedly touching your face or other people.

How to Avoid Poisonous Plants

Once you’ve identified the plants, you may be able to simply avoid contact with them. But if you can’t quite steer clear, here are a few precautions you can take:

  • Wear gloves, boots, protective eyewear, long sleeves, and long pants — even when it’s hot outside.
  • Wash your clothes immediately after you return from being outside. Then, rinse your washing machine thoroughly to make sure all traces of urushiol have been fully removed.
  • Use an ivy block barrier or lotion containing bentoquatam. These are over-the-counter skin-care products that prevent the skin from absorbing urushiol.
  • Spray unwanted plants with an herbicide (e.g. Roundup). Just be careful to avoid the plants you want to keep.
  • Since urushiol can live on the surface of objects for up to 5 years, clean any tools or gloves that may have come into contact with poison plants with rubbing alcohol or soap and water.
  • Do not burn any part of a poisonous plant. You can develop a rash from particles in the air that get onto your skin. Also, urushiol can get into the smoke and make its way into your lungs, potentially causing a severe allergic reaction that makes it difficult to breathe.

How to Treat Exposure

  • Apply an over-the-counter corticosteroid cream for the first few days.
  • Apply calamine lotion.
  • Take oral antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl, others), which may also help you sleep better.
  • Soak in a cool-water bath containing an oatmeal-based bath product (Aveeno).
  • Place cool, wet compresses on the affected area for 15 to 30 minutes several times a day.