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Hancock County Issues Deadly Public Health Risk

The hemlock (Conium maculatum) poisonous plants in the ditch.
Hemlock (Conium maculatum) stem showing purple blotches. The stem of the poisonous hemlock plant, with purple spots.

Hancock County received some poisoning news Monday during the Hancock County Board of Supervisors meeting.  Naturalist and weed commissioner Jason Lackore describes what he has found to be a public health risk from a poisonous plant growing in two locations.

Lackore found poison hemlock last year growing at the Eagle Lake Nature Area approximately 3 miles east of Britt, and he’s confirmed a second sighting just last week, at the City of Garner Yard Waste Dump.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the world renowned Cleveland Clinic, even small amounts of poison hemlock can cause poisoning, and symptoms can appear within minutes of ingestion.  Poisoning can occur when people mistake poison hemlock for other plants, such as wild parsnips, parsley or anise. Common symptoms include confusion, dilated pupils, dry mouth, excessive salivation, high blood pressure, lack of coordination, muscle weakness, rapid heartbeat, restlessness, seizures, tremors, sweating, and vomiting. There is no specific antidote for poison hemlock, so treatment focuses on just the symptoms.  Within just three hours, even a small amount can lead to respiratory paralysis, coma, and death. Poison hemlock is most dangerous when eaten, but the plant’s toxins can be absorbed through the skin or breathed in.

The primary toxin in poison hemlock is coniine. Coniine stops the nervous system from working properly, which can lead to suffocation. Over 150 to 300 milligrams of coniine, the toxic compound in poison hemlock, can be fatal, which is about the amount found in six to eight leaves.  Hemlock was used in ancient Greece to kill prisoners, and evidence indicates that hemlock may have been the poison used to kill Socrates in 399 BC.

Lackore claims it’s obvious that the plant was transported into Hancock County by means of an outside contractor doing work at those locations.

Lackore says the plant is very difficult to control but offered up some strategies to the Hancock County Board of Supervisors.

The Hancock County Board of Supervisors will discuss more containment options at their next meeting.

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