While I'm Still in the Churl-Free Mood: #5, Tecnu!

I mean to bring this up at the beginning of every summer, and it always keeps getting put off. So I'll do it now: if I had my own Nobel Prize for chemistry to award, I would give it to Dr. Robert Smith of Oregon, in recognition of his genius in inventing Tecnu. [Update: I should say the late Dr. Smith, since he died at 88 last November. That would be disqualifying for the actual Nobel prizes but not for mine.]

If you don't care about poison ivy (or its western counterpart, poison oak) -- if there's none where you live, if it doesn't bother you -- you can stop reading now. Otherwise, gaze in admiration at the Tecnu giant-size bottle I keep on hand between April and November, shown below ready for action inches away from a bathroom sink, and follow along if you will:

Thumbnail image for TechNu.jpgI feel very lucky in the general health category, and perhaps in karmic atonement I am pathologically sensitive to poison ivy and similar plants. I don't even need to touch them; walking within a foot or so of their leaves can lead to trouble. One of the few public-health benefits for me of living in China is that poison ivy didn't seem to exist there. Or at least not in places I visited, since otherwise I would have known via instant outbreaks of boils and inflammation. The pictures at the gruesome Poison-Ivy.org site are not of me. But I know how the Job-like victims shown there feel.

Poison ivy (with its related Toxicodendron plants) is a specific challenge in some places I frequent around DC, notably the otherwise-perfect running paths along the C&O Canal. And it's on on the march nearly everywhere, thanks to greenhouse gases. Predictably, it thrives on extra CO2.

Comes now Tecnu. It is part of America's endowment from the Cold War years. As the Tec Lab company history says:

>>Tec Labs' flagship product is Tecnu Original Outdoor Skin Cleanser.  Tecnu was originally developed in 1960, during the cold war years, by chemical engineer Dr. Robert Smith as an effective, waterless cleanser capable of removing radioactive dust [!!!] from skin and clothing.

His wife accidentally discovered that Tecnu would cleanse poison plant oils after exposure to poison oak in their own backyard. She didn't want their children to keep suffering from the plants so she went out back and pulled them out with her bare hands, even though she knew she was highly allergic to poison oak and ivy.  She decided to clean up with Tecnu afterwards and it worked for her.

Years later, Dr. Smith's son, Steven Smith, researched and found out that poison oak was the number one workers comp claim for local utility workers in the summer. He began selling Tecnu as a solution to decrease workers comp claims.<<
Now it's mainly available through forestry-supply outlets or direct from the manufacturer. If you use it to wash your skin as soon as possible after you're near poison ivy, it really does the job. Within an hour or two of exposure, a Tecnu bath amounts to a "cure." The longer you wait, the more of a head start the poison ivy gets. But at any stage it helps.

Don't thank me; thank Dr. Smith. Well, you can thank me too. Back to bad news soon.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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