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Vancouver Island child hospitalized after eating poisonous hemlock on school grounds

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A nine-year-old girl was hospitalized overnight after chewing and swallowing part of a poisonous hemlock plant on the grounds of a Langford, B.C., school.

The Sooke school district and the girl’s mom say the incident happened Feb. 28 during after-school care at Crystal View Elementary when kids were playing outside near a dormant garden.

“Our staff, in conjunction with the third-party providers of after-school care, immediately intervened and made sure that student was safe and then got them medical attention as soon as possible to make sure that ultimately that student would not be in any kind of danger,” says district superintendent Paul Block.

Danielle, who doesn’t want to use her last name to protect the identity of her child, says the girl thought she was biting parsley.

“It’s so unassuming,” she says. “I don’t blame (the school). It’s just bad luck.”

Poison hemlock is a non-native invasive plant, originally from Europe, that can be found in locations across Canada.

“It’s primarily found around streams, ditches, forest edges and fields,” says Dr. Nick Wong of the Invasive Species Council of BC.

The council says the plant is covered with distinct purple spots with triangular fern-like leaves and small white flowers in an umbrella cluster at the end of the stem. It says they have a long, fleshy root similar to a carrot.

“All parts of the plant contain toxic compounds to livestock and wildlife and people, so ingestion is the real deadly part and even small amounts can be quite dangerous,” according to Wong.

Danielle’s daughter was lucky. The mom says her daughter was instructed to drink lots of water and was treated in hospital using active charcoal. She says the child was kept overnight for observation due to stomach cramping. She was back to school within 48 hours.

“I want everybody to know it’s a problem on the South Island so we can do our best to educate our kids,” says Danielle.

The school district says it has a pest-management program that includes the removal of invasive and poisonous plant species.

“Typically when we have invasive species like this, particularly hemlock, they’re usually around the periphery of our school grounds,” says Block.

The district superintendent says staff are aware of poison hemlock sprouting at six school sites – including École Poirier Elementary, Journey Middle School, Centre Mountain Lellum Middle School, Dunsmuir Middle School, and Belmont Secondary.

“In [the case of Crystal View Elementary] they were unfortunately in gardens that we weren’t aware of,” says Block.

He says staff have since removed the hemlock plants from the garden and are replacing the soil in hopes of preventing it from sprouting again.

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