Returning Home: How the Land and Water Speak to Me

Dear Friends,

When I first launched this blog in 2013, I was in the process of moving from Washington, DC back to Florida, the state where I grew up.  I really had no idea what lay ahead for me, I was following a deep sense to return to the place of my childhood – a place of warm salty water and intensely hot days where, in the summer, you could smell a storm coming from the rainfall steaming on asphalt. I didn’t land in West Palm Beach, the place where I had spent my youth in the 1960s and 70s. Instead, my path swerved toward a tiny island community called Cedar Key, located in the Gulf of Mexico.

It has been wonderful to call an island home. For me, being surrounded by salt water and being able to be in or on salt water feels more at home to me than a life on land.  But, since I lack gills, I have had to adjust to terrestrial living. Most days, I think I am coping well as a human, but on some days when I am in warm salty water floating or swimming among all the aquatic life, I can feel a deep sense of oneness and interconnection that is hard for me to find anywhere else. And then…I never want to leave the water.

My blog has mostly been quiet these past couple years because I moved to Cedar Key and had the unexpected happen: a full-time job opened up for me right here in this community of 800 people. For the past several years I have been working at Seahorse Key Marine Lab, a University of Florida affiliated biological field station located in the heart of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.  Many work days, I was at a desk scheduling programs, planning programs, doing communications, invoicing, meetings and the myriad of things that go into running a place like Seahorse Key Marine Lab. But I was also fortunate to spend many days on the water running field based programs.

But as my meditation practice has taught me, impermanence is the fundamental nature of reality.  Everything changes. Even as I write these words, ecosystems that we see as fixed and unchangeable are in fact changing. Our own bodies change with every single second that passes….even if we cannot detect or feel that change, it is happening. And so it went with the job, which wound down for me in a University of Florida reorganization of the lab.

And as one door closes another door opens (yes, you can cue the Sound of Music!)

For several years as I’ve put my professional focus on ‘the road not taken’ – environmental work – there’s always been an idea in the back of mind to bring together my knowledge base in human health, biomedical science, and biology with my inherent connection and understanding of things through the framework of the natural world, somewhat akin to the ‘deep ecology’ movement. I am also hoping to bring into my work my experiences as a mindfulness mediation practitioner as well as conflict management and stakeholder facilitation. I am particularly interested in working with individuals, communities, and organizations around issues related to environmental health and justice.

So here is my (re)launch of Helping People, Helping the Planet – both the blog and the business. Please visit the website to see more about what kind of work projects.

Thanks for reading!

Maria

 

 

 

 

 

Asphalt Kills Fish (And It May Not Be So Hot for Humans)

Asphalt Kills Fish (And It May Not Be So Hot for Humans)

I wish I could take credit for the ‘Asphalt Kills Fish’ but I can’t. That credit goes to a person I met in October 2012 at the Chesapeake (Bay) Watershed Forum, who was talking about the need for simpler messages on what is harming the bay. He thought he might make a bumper sticker saying ‘Asphalt Kills Fish.’

If you haven’t clicked away already or snoozed off you might be wondering “Maria, how does asphalt kill fish?”

So glad you asked! I’ll try to keep it simple.

In water geek circles, asphalt is also called an impervious surface. Impervious is a fancy word meaning ‘things don’t soak in.’ Pervious simply means surfaces that are porous or have spaces to absorb water. A sponge you use in your kitchen and bathroom can soak up water. It’s porous, it’s pervious. Got it?

Now imagine rain falling on a sponge and rain falling on a linoleum kitchen floor. Soak in or run-off?

So…. when rain falls on asphalt – or for that matter – other hard, impervious surfaces like concrete, roofs, parking lots, and so on, that rain runs off these hard surfaces rather then soaking into the soil.

Why is this a problem?

Well, that water, sometimes called stormwater, or polluted run-off picks up pollution…things like trash such as plastic bags, empty soda bottles, oil and other chemicals that have leaked out of cars, fertilizer that spilled out from a golf course or someone’s lawn, and all the seen and unseen stuff that ends up in our parking lots and on our roads. The detritus of modern life.

You still with me after detritus?

Now imagine that soupy stuff – you’ve seen it, I know you have. You are out crossing the street when it’s raining and you see that grey water running along the curb and you try to jump over it to not get your shoes wet? Or it’s the stuff that splashes on you as a car drives by? Maybe you watched as a plastic bottle whizzed by you down the street in a storm.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Drain_runoff_in_Kharkiv.jpg

Rain entering a storm drain on a street

Yeah, that’s the stuff.

Do you know where most of this polluted runoff ends up? [feel free to phone a friend, surf the net, I’ll wait].

If you said ‘our creeks, streams, rivers, bays, and oceans’ give yourself 3 points! You are correct! For the most part, in the United States, polluted runoff or stormwater goes into stormwater drains at our curbs , through big underground pipes and directly into our streams, rivers and bays. Let me repeat: DIRECTLY INTO OUR STREAMS. It does not make a pit stop at the water treatment plant for a quick clean-up, it not pass go, it does not collect $200.00 (monopoly game reference). What it does collect is pollution and lots of it.

[Why things are constructed that way is beyond the scope of this story, but let’s just say when there were less people and less asphalt on the planet this seemed likean okay idea. But it’s really getting us into some hot water now].

So do you think that polluted runoff might harm fish? It does. But as a scientist you know what I say “Don’t believe me, believe the data!”

And as a self-proclaimed geek/nerd/scientist, I do like data. And I like really, clean simple data. Even better if it has a great picture. And this story does.

Image courtesy of: Wikipedia

Polluted runoff leaving a storm pipe and going directly into the ocean

 

Jenifer McIntyre, Ph.D., a researcher at Washington State University, and her team did a simple and beautifully elegant study asking just this question: Does polluted runoff harm fish? And can something called ‘low impact development’ – in this case a rain garden – help?

Dr. McIntyre and her team tested this out by collecting some of this polluted water from a stormpipe in Seattle (trust me; you wouldn’t want to swim in this stuff). Some of the water they passed through a filter that was constructed to mimic a rain garden. The rest of the polluted water they left as is.

They then added the filtered and unfiltered polluted runoff directly to two tanks filled with baby salmon and watched what happened.  The plan was to watch the fish for 4 days…but it only took 12 hours to kill all the fish exposed directly to the unfiltered polluted runoff. The fish in the tank with the filtered water: all alive.

To see this experiment in action, go to: http://vimeo.com/51603152#

A rain garden filters polluted runoff from a parking lot, helping to keep streams clean, create beauty, and more.

 

Now, I am not going to get too much into the harming humans part here except to pose these questions:

Do you think this stuff might hurt humans too? Would you want to swim in the polluted runoff after watching the video? And do you swim now or do you want to be able to be able to swim in your lakes, your rivers, your oceans?

Did you grow up swimming in a creek that now you and your friends shake your head and say “whatever happened? That water used to be so clear! Do you want that for your kids? Your grandkids? Your nieces and nephews?

We did this friends…we created the problem. But the good news? We have the capacity to fix the problem!

But Maria, Maria you say: We need asphalt. What do we do?

I hear you, I hear you. And not only am I empathic, I too depend on asphalt and other impervious surfaces every day of my life.

But as someone who sees more and more the interdependency of my own life with that of other people and all other living organisms, I really want to reduce the amount of suffering and harm I cause by being on the planet. I want the kids I teach to grow up knowing the adults on the planet recognized there was a problem and we tried to fix it for them. We tried to live a little differently. We tried to live less in harm and more in harm-ony.

I also believe all of our actions – no matter how large or how small they may seem to us – affect the world. So I encourage you to do one thing (D.O.T.) this week, this month, or this year to make a difference. Maybe that one thing is forwarding this story to someone else.

Here are a few other choices:

Big: Share what you know: If you learned something by reading this, share that with someone.

Bigger: Plant a tree: Tree roots and tree canopies (the leaves and branches part) can soak up lots and lots of rainfall and prevent it from ever entering our streets. Stop fertilizing grass or only fertilize in the the fall. Ask me more.

Even Bigger: Figure out if you live somewhere where there is an impervious surface tax or fee and a rebate program: I live in Washington DC which has an impervious surface fee and a rebate program called “RiverSmart” that helps communities and individuals deal with polluted runoff in their homes, churches, and schools.

Keep up the good work, thanks for listening, and talk to you again soon.

Maria

Letting Go of the Perfect Apple and Getting More Comfortable with Ants: Rethinking Our Use of Pesticides

Are you sitting at your desk, ready to read this blog and about to bite into a shiny red juicy apple? I hesitate to even say this (but how else can I get your attention?) – do you know where that apple came from? How that apple got to you?  And what chemicals might have been used to get it to you, all shiny and red? And did humans or other living beings, including insects get harmed in getting that apple to look that shiny and perfect? (Disclaimer: there will be frank and open talk about insects in some of these columns.)

I am betting your answer is no, and you can admit it without shame because many of us don’t, myself included.  But, more and more, I’ve started to think about my health, the health of other human beings, and the health of other living things, and how all we are all connected. See through this lens of infinite interconnectedness, I’ve begun to wonder and also have come to believe that somehow in our pursuit of ‘the shiny red apple’ we’ve overshot the mark so to speak and things are out of balance.

For the coming few months, I’ll be devoting regular blogs to emerging information on chemicals and pesticides in our environment and in us. The aspiration will be to offer up some data (friends, I am first and foremost a science geek and biologist, confession made), some deep insights on how not to get overwhelmed by it all, and some simple actions or intentions you can set on to help restore some of the balance both in yourself and in your relationship with other living beings.

Now, on to pesticides.

Scientists, doctors, and public health officials often frame an emerging public health problem by saying something like “Increasing reports in the scientific peer-reviewed literature about the association between eating blue pickles and the risk of turning blue raise concern about how many blue pickles we should be consuming.” (STOP worrying: not a real example, although I think I have seen blue pickles in a jar somewhere so I wonder…).

Did you zone out somewhere around ‘peer-reviewed literature’ or did you just snooze at “increasing reports?”

What does this mean in sort-of plain language? It means that many, many people like myself, who see the world through the framework of science and problems and puzzles to be solved and sorted, and have spent hours and hours of their lives squirreled away indoors, poring over numbers, and reports, and hours and hours in labs conducting multiple tests, and in the field conducting multiple surveys and studies…just to be sure, finally push back from their desk and say “I think there is a link here.”

Eventually if those links add up and point to a problem, something big happens in the medical literature world. And this month, something big happened.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a policy statement and technical report on emerging data on the risk of health problems children suffer when exposed to pesticides.  These health problems are nothing to sneeze at (pun intended) since they range from allergies to behavioral problems to cognitive/brain function impairment to childhood cancer.

How do kids come in contact with pesticides? It’s easy to think that what we are talking about here and what the AAP might be talking about are the tragic and accidental poisonings that happen when a small child gets into some insecticide from the garage. But those are actually few and far between, pretty easily fixed with cabinet locks and so on.

What’s been more hidden, harder to measure, and far, far, far more widespread is the long-term, low dose exposure that kids and all of us get every day. And kids are probably uniquely sensitive to such exposures because of how they are still developing. But adults are also affected.

Where are children exposed to pesticides? Well frankly, where aren’t they?

In the home: food, chemicals used to keep away those ‘pests’ such as ants who come to the kitchen seeking the same thing we do –food, shelter! In the yard – on the grass, on the plants, where again, we want lawns to ‘look good.’  In school – again in the food, on the grass, in the hallways where chemicals might have been used to control pests. And in our water. Think about it: they are everywhere.

Okay, this is the point in the blog where you are probably feeling overwhelmed, maybe even a little freaked out. So pause, take a breath and just realize what it feels like to feel overwhelmed and freaked out by this all.  You may even feel a bit hopeless. Or you may think:  “Is something about the way I am living harming my child? Or myself?” I feel daunted by my own exposure and I am not a parent. But I have lots of kids who I am close to and it makes me wonder….

Believe me, I got asked this question a lot as a physician and there is no easy way to answer it. We just have to stay with how things are, not freak out entirely but maybe freak out just enough that we are motivated to change something.

And then we can take a breath and say, what can I do differently? And where do I start?

So here are my tips for the Do One Thing (D.O.T.). DOT is an approach on how, in the face of feeling overwhelmed, we can break things down into small chunks so we can figure out where to start. (I not come up with D.O.T. but I like it. If you know who came up with it, please let me know so I can give them credit).

1)   Remove one pesticide/herbicide from your home and yard:

Look in your cabinets? Do you really need to kill ants by spraying them with insecticides? Ants are attracted into our homes by their desire to find food so as much as possible, keep food stored away tightly and keep surfaces clean. And remember, for the most part, ants help us live better by doing many useful jobs such as feeding on other pests (e.g., fleas, caterpillars, and termites), dead insects, and decomposing tissue from dead animals. Go ants!  If they didn’t do this, well use your imagination…things would kind of pile up. (Remember the disclaimer: frank insect talk).

If living in harmony with ants doesn’t feel like the next best step for you, consider using Integrated Pest Management (IPM) approaches instead. IPM uses less toxic methods to control insects. (read more at: http://www.beyondpesticides.org/saferchoice/index.php)

2) Switch to eating one fruit or vegetable grown organically as much as possible:

 As a physician, I believe that eating fruits and vegetables is one of the single best things we can probably do for our long-term health. And I also know that pesticide use in food growing is widespread. So over the next few weeks, try to pick one fruit or vegetable that you may want to try to buy organic most of the time. Organic food costs more and may not be available near you, so this may not be the best D.O.T. option for you.

If it is, then think about picking a food that you eat a lot of. For example, I eat a lot of greens – spinach, kale, chard – and they are more likely to have pesticides use on them so I try to buy them organically. There are several guides out there but I use the Environmental Working Group’s Shoppers guide to the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen.”

3) Help protect our kids and our water: Support ‘Smart On Pesticides’ Maryland, a petition asking the State of Maryland to help make reporting of pesticide application mandatory, instead of voluntary and to create a database to help collect this information in one place.

In Maryland, we suffer from a critical gap in knowledge of when, how much, and where pesticides have been applied. While registered pesticide applicators are required to keep such records, they are not required to report them. Part of the problem is the lack of a centralized, online reporting database.  In contrast, health care providers are required to report suspected or confirmed pesticide exposures.

Thanks for reading…and hope to hear from you.

 

 

Welcome to ‘Helping People Help the Planet’

Welcome All, to this, my foray into the blogging world. Maybe you’ve arrived here because you are a friend, colleague, family member or perhaps you don’t even know me and stumbled upon this blog some other way. There are many paths to getting here, so whichever way you took, welcome and I hope you enjoy reading and commenting on these posts.

But let me tell you a little about how I got here.  I am not sure I ever imagined I’d be writing a blog, although since I was a small child, I’ve been writing, and during my professional career, writing has been a key part of what I’ve done. Writing is what helps me comprehend myself, the world around me, and my relationships to all living things. And it helps me connect, understand, and integrate.  (To read more about details about my professional career, please visit me at www.mariasgambati.com).

As long as I can remember, I’ve felt  deep connection to the natural world, and, as a small child growing up in South Florida, my memory is of spending every spare minute outside. In fact, I thought being made to come inside was some sort of punishment! That fascination with the natural world led me to study biology as an undergraduate at Warren Wilson College. Still interested in understanding how living systems worked, I went on to study medicine at Wake Forest University. My path eventually led me to the National Institutes of Health, where my eyes really were opened to the larger world of biomedical research and communications. I loved working there and learning there…but over time, I gradually began to realize I was spending all my free time volunteering in the environmental field, including a volunteer vacation doing coral reef surveys.

Then, one fateful day at work, during a conversation with two colleagues, I said “I want a job where I can wear my bathing suit to work.” It had just popped out and we all had a good laugh about lifeguards and beauty contestants, but in some place deep inside of me, I knew a long-hidden truth had come to the surface: I really cared passionately about the natural world…ecology…the environment. And that the day was coming when I needed and wanted to follow this passion.

After a long period of contemplation, I finally left the NIH and began working part time in the environmental field. I was immediately drawn towards environmental education. For the past few years, I’ve been immersing myself in water issues, particularly around stormwater pollution and water quality monitoring and educating children and adults about these issues.

Now I realize a new path is unfolding for me, a path that is calling me to integrate the first part of my professional career in medicine and research with my passion for and deep understanding of the natural world. And so the idea for this blog was born! My vision is that this blog will cover very specific topics at the intersection of environmental and human health. However, my philosophy, my world view is that these discrete points of connection are part of the a seamless  continuum: we, as human beings, are not separate from our environments, not separate from other living beings or the natural world but are deeply integrated into it and inter-related to it as a whole.

What I really want to do is help people help the planet, and in doing so, help people understand how that can help their own health. Every day the planet quietly and without fanfare provides us with what we human beings need to physically thrive: water, food, air. Along the way, many people and many living organisms help us with this: by cleaning and caring for the water, growing food and tending to the land, and keeping air clean so we can breathe easily. While this blog is intended to be scientific in nature, it will also have philosophical themes woven in that not only reflect my view of the world but I hope will serve as a source of insight and transformation.

I welcome your feedback and topic ideas! If you see something in the paper or hear something in the news, send it along. And thanks for reading.

Lastly, a big expression of gratitude goes out to all those who helped me get here both personally and professionally. I couldn’t have done this with out any of you.

-Maria