Anybody living near a transit depot probably knows that having buses refueled and sitting with engines running in your backyard isn't the greatest for your health. But how do you change things? After sharing their community with a Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) maintenance facility for more than half a century, residents of East Baltimore's Cecil-Kirk neighborhood were wondering just that.
Enter Johns Hopkins University Professor Michael Trush, toxicologist turned community activist. "They wouldn't let their children sleep in bedrooms facing the bus depot because of the health effects," Trush says of the residents, whose homes stood across an alley from the facility.
Armed with statistics from a 2002 report by the Citizens' Housing and Planning Association in which he offered ways to decrease bus exhaust exposure, Trush brought residents and MTA officials together to start talking about the problem. Now the agency is replacing the outdated facility with a closed structure.
"Mike gets it," says Pat Tracey, a community relations coordinator who has worked for Trush since 2003 at the Bloomberg School's Center in Urban Environmental Health. "He understands the burdens that are on communities, whether dealing with bus depots, landfills, cement factories, or mining," she says.
She and colleague Barbara Bates-Hopkins channel Baltimore residents' concerns to Trush, who helps them help themselves. "We dismiss their myths about things and give them the truth," Tracey says of the people Trush helps. "We give them the tools to help them speak for themselves."
Trush's insight into blue-collar Baltimore reaches back to his own childhood in southwestern Pennsylvania. He grew up next door to his Russian-born grandfather, a coal miner who died of black lung. When Grandpop wasn't beneath the earth, he had his hands in it as an avid gardener who grew his own food.
"What he and I used to do all the time in the summer was go blackberry picking," Trush remembers. Then his Polish-born grandmother would use the fruit for pies. "He had these massive gardens where he grew all these vegetables." Little did Grandpop know he was creating an environmentalist in young Michael.
In college at what's now California University of Pennsylvania, Trush studied botany and learned about herbicides and pesticides. A pharmaceutical association pamphlet caught his attention: He realized toxicology unites those interests. He taught high school biology in Herminie, PA in the early 70's then went to graduate school at West Virginia University. It was a heady time for environmentalists, he says. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970, and toxicology was emerging as its own field.
His first community outreach project came in the early 90's when he helped create a Maryland Public Television series called EnviroMysteries. Targeting middle schoolers, the show had students play detective and, for instance, determine that contaminated lettuce sickened people at a community event. And for more than a decade, he worked through MPT to offer a week-long workshop to help school teachers improve instruction in environmental health.
"Mike is the one who stepped up to the plate," turning academic expertise into something useful for the community, says James Yager, a dean and fellow toxicology professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. "It's really building knowledge-making them aware of the science-so they can have some information they can use in making decisions."
A recent day finds Trush in his cluttered seventh-floor office writing two quizzes and a final exam for the online toxicology class he teaches with Yager. He also is preparing to fly to Singapore to help develop the country's new public health program. And that night, he plans to be "in studio" for a live talk with his students-a sort of instant messaging with microphones.
At noon, he heads two blocks east to Eastern Market, which is abuzz with lunchtime customers. Amid folding tables laden with brochures about asthma and lead paint, he serves as the incarnation of a once-a-month PR effort to reach a low-income population that surrounds the hospital, yet takes little advantage of it.
One man sidles up for a better look, and Trush starts a conversation.
"Do you live around here?" he asks.
The man lives in the 500 block of Washington Avenue and talks about all the construction and rehab work nearby. He complains about people pressure-washing their houses to remove paint, which goes airborne. Trush tells him where to report suspicious contractors, then turns to the health benefits of eating right.
"How's your blood pressure?" he asks.
"Good," the man answers.
Says Trush, "You gotta eat your fruits and vegetables, because that's gonna make your protection better."