Baltimore’s location along the Patapsco River offers the city a gateway to the Atlantic. But with this prime location comes a history of environmental havoc. In the past, Baltimore’s water access helped it thrive as a prime industrial city, which means the economy was heavily influenced by manufacturing and shipping. This also means that many of the by-products of such processes were released into the harbor and are still lingering in our waterways today, including heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, and other toxic pollutants. While the city's economy has changed to a service economy, for the most part, with world-recognized health care institutions, the environmental struggle endures. This is due to issues such as storm-water runoff, archaic sewage systems — and littering. Walking along the Inner Harbor on a sunny day, one cannot help but notice the substantial amount of garbage floating along the coastline.
This summer, I had the opportunity to collaborate with the Baltimore City Recreation and Parks Department to host a “Canoe and Scoop” event as part of our Community Outreach Initiative at St. Agnes Hospital, where I’m a general surgery resident. The initiative's purpose is to connect St. Agnes Hospital and its associates to the surrounding community. It strives to improve the local neighborhoods through a multifaceted approach including cleanups and health fairs.
At St. Agnes, we realize well-being goes beyond health care. Thus, on July 14th, our squad of resident physicians and physician assistants from the general surgery and internal medicine departments launched our kayaks and canoes, with scoops in hand, from Middle Branch Park. We spent the morning collecting countless old plastic bottles, foam from various sources, plastic bags, old tennis shoes and other rubbish from the coastline. Our group was shocked by the extent of pollution our waterways suffer.
Even though we collected numerous bags of garbage and could have, quite honestly, continued for a week in that one location, the reality was that it was only a drop in the ocean — or harbor, rather. To win this battle, it not only takes one group's efforts, a few weekends a year, but it falls on the entire community. We all need to find time to make our harbor cleaner. Participating in local events, such as the Canoe and Scoop, not only aids in pollution cleanup but also helps bring awareness to the problem. From a public health perspective, lack of awareness is often the base of many issues.
Currently there are various Baltimore-based organizations working toward the common goal of a cleaner, more livable harbor. Baltimore has employed three trash wheels, commonly known as Mr., Professor and Captain Trash Wheel. Typically, during heavy rainstorms, the garbage from the streets and sidewalks of Baltimore would be carried to rivers and streams, which then dump it into the harbor. These devices collect garbage from the watershed areas and prevent it from entering the harbor. Additionally, the Trash Wheel family members are powered by sustainable energy to minimize their carbon footprint.
To also prevent the trash from reaching the harbor, an Adopt-a-Stream program is in place. This program connects individuals in the community with streams in their local neighborhoods. The adopters are educated on detecting and reporting unlawful emptying and discharges into streams. To help build up the natural wetland ecosystem, there are various projects including restoration of shorelines, streams and oyster beds in addition to invasive species monitoring and erosion/sediment control.
Beyond efforts that are best carried out in an organizational manner, there are many weekend or single-day events one can join such as waterway cleanups, creation of rain gardens and advocacy days. On an individual basis, other actions can be taken such as recycling, avoiding littering and educating one's family and friends about the environmental condition in our harbor.
I encourage everyone to get out, volunteer, advocate and collaborate with our local organizations to help make Baltimore and it's harbor a cleaner, more enjoyable community. It's everyone's responsibility.
Dr. Eliza Slama is a general surgery resident at St. Agnes Hospital; her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.