After blood-filled syringes and rubber gloves washed out of a Canton storm drain into the Baltimore harbor recently, city investigators began tracking down the source.
They are planning to identify medical sites, such as clinics, labs and doctor's offices, in the areas of Southeast Baltimore where streets drain into the tunnel. Health officials plan to notify those facilities and local physicians, sternly reminding them of laws that require safe disposal of medical waste.
It is the latest incident in a chronic situation. The storm drains are supposed to be exclusively for water run-off, but after a hard rain, any trash on the streets washes into them and comes shooting out into the harbor.
At the storm drain near Anchorage Marina on Boston Street, tennis balls, foam cups, scraps of sofas, dead cats -- and even a diamond engagement ring -- have made their way through the drain. In early August, after a rainstorm, the decomposed body of a newborn boy was found floating just outside the drain.
On Oct. 5, after a heavy rain, 20 to 30 syringes -- many containing blood -- along with a dozen pairs of rubber gloves, were found floating in the same spot.
Dr. Peter Beilenson, city health commissioner, said the syringes could spread hepatitis or other infectious diseases should children or others prick themselves or someone else.
He also warned that other waste emerging from the drain might contain potentially deadly bacteria like E. coli.
Medical experts said that if the blood spilled into the water, the danger would be minimal, since it would be quickly diluted.
Dr. David Vlahov, associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, said it is unlikely the syringes are from the city's needle exchange program, since they aren't emblazoned with the program's bar codes.
The amount of blood in the syringes indicates a medical source.
"It does point the finger at some of our medical facilities, who for whatever reason are not doing the complete job and not following the law," said Don Torres, the city's assistant commissioner for environmental health.
Run-off from Patterson Park, Highlandtown and parts of Fells Point empty into the Canton storm drain.
For those who live in the nearby condominium high-rise, Anchorage Towers, the outflow is distressing.
"This has been turned from a historical area into nothing more than a garbage dump," said Dr. Jesse Borden, a retiree. The building's windows overlook the 547-slip marina.
Just to the left of the high-rise is the storm drain, which is at least 15 feet wide, one of the largest in the harbor.
It empties into a small creek that flows into the marina. Two booms can be used to trap the trash in the creek area, but residents object.
"It's terrible," said Harriet Forrest, a resident and the marina's manager. "You have a beautiful apartment that overlooks the river, and you can't look down."
But if the marina releases the trash, it floats through the boats and into the harbor.
That's where people like George Gordon, who lives on a sloop in the marina, must confront the odor, as well as the plastic grocery bags and thousands of foam cups. The trash can easily block the boat's water intake hole, causing the engine to overheat.
"My boat has lots of Styrofoam on the sides," said Mr. Gordon, who is heading toward cleaner waters in the Bahamas.
Boaters and residents are united in their concern for a duck that got inside the wrapper of a soda bottle. The young duck grew in the past month until the wrapper was so tight it couldn't escape. Now residents are on the lookout for the limping duck, hoping to cut off the wrapper.
A pair of city boats patrol the harbor and pick up trash daily, with an extra shift for busy -- and dirty -- weekends. A typical week yields enough trash to fill a 5-cubic-yard container. After a rain, that same container can be filled three times.
The city has two additional boats, but they are being overhauled during the fall, when less trash is expected, said Robert Romanowski, superintendent of the city's marine operations. Although residents say they need more boats, Mr. Romanowski said he believes two are doing the job, adding that the Anchorage Marina area is cleaned every morning.
Mr. Torres plans to discuss with the Department of Public Works whether to put booms at the storm drains to catch debris until it can be removed.
"It's everybody's job, whether a resident or business or hospital," he said. "Everybody has to be very aware to clean up their waste properly."
But at least one item that came flying down Canton's storm drain brought good fortune.
Three years ago, after a thundershower, a yacht engineer was walking up the pier when he spied a black velvet box floating away from the drain. Tom Waite, who works at East Harbor Marine Center, said the engineer grabbed a boat hook and snared it.
The box held a three-quarter carat diamond ring.
The engineer gave the ring to a man whose boat, and all his belongings, had sunk. He used it to propose to his girlfriend. She accepted.