‘My face started peeling,’ teen says after touching toxic plant now spreading in NC

A GoFundMe page has been set up to help with expenses for Alex Childress, who is a student at Virginia Tech.
A GoFundMe page has been set up to help with expenses for Alex Childress, who is a student at Virginia Tech.

A poisonous eastern European weed recently found growing in North Carolina and Virginia is being blamed for putting a Virginia teen in the hospital for two days after he touched it, according to media outlets in Virginia.

The sap of giant hogweed plants can cause blisters, burns and even potential blindness in humans, experts say.

Proof came this week when Alex Childress, 17, of the Fredericksburg area of Virginia, chopped down one of the weeds while doing yard work Tuesday, and it fell against his face and arm, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

By the end of the night, he was in a burn unit of a Virginia hospital, where he stayed for two days, the newspaper reports.

“I thought I had a bad sunburn,” the teen told TV station WWBT. “I got in the shower and my face started peeling... I had third degree burns on my face and arms... Don’t go anywhere near it.”

The N.C. Department of Agriculture recently issued a warning that toxic giant hogweed has been found in six sites in Watagua County, along the northern border of N.C. The plant, which is native to eastern Europe, produces a sap that is considered more dangerous than poison ivy, and can cause blindness.

In recent days, residents in and around Charlotte have called state officials to report they may have the same plant growing in their yard. It has not been determined if that is the case, however.

The plant grows up 10 to to 15 feet tall, has fuzz on its stalk, and produces an umbrella-shaped canopy of white flowers. Giant hogweed is technically in the carrot family, state officials said.

State officials believe the infestation began with a homeowner who used the plant to prevent soil erosion.

“Giant hogweed is a threat to natural systems and human health,” said a statement issued by the Department of Agriculture. “Giant hogweed can cause skin reactions...large, painful blisters with eruptions within 24-48 hours of exposure. When exposed to sunlight, the blisters leave permanent purple scars. The sap can also result in blindness if exposed to the eyes.”

Thirty giant hogweed plants were found June 12 in Virginia’s Clarke County, northwest of Washington D.C., according to The Massey Herbarium at Virginia Tech. More plants were later reported Charlottesville and Middlesex County, east of Richmond.

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Experts say the plant is spread by birds, which eat its dried fruits and then disperse the seeds as waste.

N.C. plant specialists are attempting to eradicate the plant with herbicides before it spreads to additional counties, state officials said. A search is also under way to see if other infestations can be found.

A GoFundMe account has been set up to help Alex Childress with expenses: www.gofundme.com/alexs-burn-recovery-fund.

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Mark Price: 704-358-5245, @markprice_obs