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article imageStudy shows Kudzu a health risk in addition to being a nuisance

By Martin Laine     May 18, 2010 in Environment
Kudzu, that fast-growing, stubborn, leafy vine that covers millions of acres of the southeastern U.S. has also been found to be a major source of surface ozone, a pollutant that can cause serious health problems in humans.
Researchers at the University of Virginia and Harvard University have found that the plant contains the chemicals isoprene and nitric oxide. When these mix with the nitrogen found in the atmosphere, it produces ozone.
Ozone can irritate the eyes, nose, and throat; worsen asthma; and can cause lung cancer. In addition to the health threat to humans, it can also affect the health of crops.
Their findings were published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We found that this chemical reaction caused by kudzu leads to about a 50 percent increase in the number of days each year in which ozone levels exceed what the Environmental Protection Agency deems as unhealthy,” said Manuel Lerdau, a professor at UVa and co-author of the study. The increase is so great, the study found, that it offsets any gains made by pollution-control legislation.
“This is yet another compelling reason to begin seriously combating this biological invasion,” Lerdau said.
Kudzu, native to Japan, was brought to the United States in 1876, as part of Japan’s exhibit at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Gardeners and landscapers were attracted to it, and soon it was being cultivated and sold throughout the south. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service promoted its use as a means to control erosion.
But the plant can grow wildly out of control, growing as much as a foot in a single day. It quickly overgrows anything that’s not moving. It has damaged forests and crops, choking out all the native species. Various means have been tried to control it, but without remarkable success.
And now, with a series of milder winters, the plant is moving farther north, as far as Pennsylvania, where it had been previously unknown.
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