2016: Pathetic Ottawa City Officials Fear Going Outside

2016: Pathetic Ottawa City Officials Fear Going Outside

If you go down to the woods this summer, the City of Ottawa wants you in full hazmat gear. With goggles. Gloves, too. And don’t touch any wild flowers. And stay in parks with groomed paths.

Ottawa is worried about wild parsnip, a weed that’s all over the region. The city is spending about $200,000 this year to mow and spray it because getting its sap on one’s skin and then exposing it to strong sunlight for an extended period causes burns and blisters in some people.

The city’s website advises we go to extraordinary lengths to avoid contact:

• “It is recommended that the public stay on the groomed areas of parks, roadsides and pathways,” where there is less parsnip.

• Also, “…when walking through dense vegetation, wear goggles, gloves, long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Thoroughly wash boots and gloves with soap and water before taking off your protective clothing.”

• And: “Children should be reminded not to pick wild flowers.”

The strict warnings are baffling nature experts, who don’t see the familiar plant as a threat.

“It smells like worker health and safety rules coming down, like what the Ministry of Labour has imposed on the city for their staff,” said Steven Cooke, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Environmental Science and Biology at Carleton University.

“The first step would be educating people (about) what it looks like,” he said.

“I want my kids to be playing outside, and guess what? They’re going to get stung by things that sting, they’re going to get bug bites, they’re going to get burrs. But they’re going to get a lot more out of life.

“We teach a discovery-based approach to learning, and experiential learning, and that whole concept (of the new warnings) is backwards,” Cooke said.

“I bet there are City of Ottawa employees whose job is to try and get kids out into nature,” he said. (He’s right.)

As for walking on park paths, “the point is that it’s a groomed path. You can go to Disney World as well and walk through the Canadian pavilion, and it looks like the wild, but it’s not.”

Cooke wants kids to have “grass stains and mud and burrs” on their clothes. “You’re not going to find creepy-crawly things on the ground of paved paths. You’re not going to inspire someone to become a biologist on a groomed path.”

Paths protect the landscape in high-traffic areas, he noted, “but letting people wander off-trail and just go for walks in the forest — that’s special. That’s being Canadian.”

Michael Runtz has taught a generation of Carleton University students about nature, and is the author of 10 books on this region’s wildlife.

He says the city’s advice “borders on fear-mongering.

“It sounds like they’re going into a chemical-spill area,” he said.

“I’ve never worn goggles, never worn any form of protection when I’m outside, and still don’t feel the need for that. This is certainly excessive to say the least.”

Citizen reporter, Tom Spears, is outfitted in the protective gear, including boots, gloves and goggles, that the city of Ottawa recommends to wear while out enjoying nature at Mud Lake Tuesday April 26, 2016.
Citizen reporter, Tom Spears, is outfitted in the protective gear, including boots, gloves and goggles, that the city of Ottawa recommends to wear while out enjoying nature at Mud Lake Tuesday April 26, 2016. Darren Brown

When asked whether wild parsnip was as harmful as the City of Ottawa’s website suggests, the City of Ottawa directed Postmedia to the wild parsnip section of its website.

Runtz said it’s “ridiculous” to tell children never to touch a wild flower. And warning people to stay on trails “is inspiring fear in people, when what we want to do is encourage people to be outside. It’s not only better for their health to be outside walking through nature, but also better for their spirit and mind. That’s a proven fact. To discourage people from going out and touching things, I think, is really the wrong approach.

“I’ve encountered it all my life and never had any problem with it. I’ve probably avoided direct contact, but I think the key thing is to be educated what it looks like.”

Runtz said he has had hundreds of poison ivy rashes in nearly 60 years of exploring nature, and has been stung over and over by bees and wasps. But he has never suffered a wild parsnip burn.

Doctors often see this kind of burn on people who mix lime drinks in summer sunshine, hence the nicknames “Mexican beer disease” and “margarita dermatitis.” Limes and wild parsnips contain the same chemical, psoralen, which makes skin extra-sensitive to sunburn.

tspears@postmedia.com twitter.com/TomSpears1

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