When Glenn Ross was a child, in the early 1960s, he liked to take a shortcut through a field of sunflowers on his way to school. “It was beautiful, all these yellow sunflowers,” Ross recalls. “We’d bring home the seeds and fry ‘em up with butter and salt.”
A charming memory, but for the fact that Ross grew up in an industrial section of East Baltimore and this bucolic scene bordered a steel plant. One day he was at the neighborhood playground when word went around that “men in spacesuits” were collecting the flowers. When he went to investigate, he says he saw workers in Hazmat gear harvesting the plants, having surrounded the area with caution tape. Many years later, Ross learned that sunflowers are used in phytoremediation projects to pull lead from the soil. (Trail mix, anyone?)
These days, the site -- now a vast sorting facility for construction debris -- is one stop on Ross’ Toxic Tour, a rollicking bus ride through the contaminated wonderland that is inner-city Baltimore. A self-described “urban environmentalist,” Ross leads dozens of tours a year, primarily for college students from Johns Hopkins University’s schools of medicine, nursing, and (wait for it) public health, which are located nearby. The tours take in brownfields, rat infestations, truck traffic, illegal dumping sites, vacant buildings, and other environmental hazards in Baltimore’s poor, predominantly black communities.
Ross, who has been leading them for nearly a decade, makes sure the bus windows are open for these warm-weather outings. “I put it right up in their face -- they've got to smell it, taste it, the whole nine yards,” he says. “And at the end of the tour, they get it.”
“It,” says Ross, is nothing less than environmental racism. “These things only happen in poor urban communities, neighborhoods where there’s poor political representation."