By Michael Errigo and Abby Mergenmeier
Capital News Service
BALTIMORE — In the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Carrollton Ridge, trash lines the alleys, spilling out onto the sidewalk and into the street, where it is kicked around by pedestrians, nabbed by scavenging mice or flattened by speeding cars.
Those trash-filled alleys and the decaying, boarded-up row houses that mark most blocks attract mice and roaches, which make their way into occupied homes.
The trash, the roaches, the rats and mice — they all make residents sick with asthma.
Between June 2012 and April 2016, the 21223 zip code, which includes Carrollton Ridge, had 3,666 patients who visited the emergency room with a diagnosis of asthma, according to data from the Maryland Health Services Cost Review Commission. That number represents about 12 percent of all patients from that zip code who visited the ER.
This area’s asthma rate is nearly 2.5 percent higher than the Baltimore average and nearly double Maryland’s asthma rate of about 6 percent.
Old houses tend to have cracks and holes that can let in mice and roaches. Pest-control services can be pricey. And a lack of regular maintenance by residents, landlords and tenants increases the risk of having asthma triggers in and around the home.
The people who live here — property-owners and tenants alike — try to cope.
In a rowhouse on South Smallwood Street, homeowner Dawn Ford spends much of her day in a wheelchair and relies on oxygen to help her breathe. She uses the pesticide Sevin to keep the roach problem under control.
“I throw the dust around and it kind of tames them down and sends them back where they came from,” Ford said. The roaches “come on over here, and I run them back.”
Read more about Dawn Ford: Carrollton Ridge homeowner tethered to house by bad health
The Sevin product she uses, though, is a garden pesticide meant only for outdoor use. It contains a chemical that causes muscle weakness, difficulty breathing, skin irritation, gastrointestinal distress, and potentially could cause cancer, according to the National Pesticide Information Center.
Ford knows this, but she spreads it around inside her house anyway. She’s tired of the roaches in her home and she says this is the only thing that works.
Radiators and wooden floors can be triggers
Cohen Croslin, 12, lives in a rowhouse on West Lafayette Avenue. He’s one of the children living in the area with asthma.
“I won’t say I was very educated about asthma, even though my sister had it,” Stefanie Croslin, Cohen’s mother, said.
Stefanie Croslin said that her son was not a sickly baby, and she was not aware that asthma could develop over time. Their aging home has radiator heat and wooden floors, a dusty combination that Cohen Croslin says affects his asthma. His family takes care to keep dust down. And Cohen, who wants to be an engineer, is healthy enough to play soccer.
The main causes of asthma are things that cannot easily be seen, things that many homeowners may not even be aware of.
“It’s a disease where there’s inflammation in the lungs,” said Dr. Elizabeth Matsui, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who researches asthma triggers in children. “Your lungs are the first organ system after your nasal passages that interacts with the environment, and so things that you breathe in can induce inflammation and then the inflammation leads to asthma symptoms.”
Some of these things that are breathed in are everyday allergens and particles left behind by pests, especially dried mouse urine, Dr. Matsui said. [Read Q&A with Matsui]
“The mouse allergen is concentrated in the urine,” she said. “It’s airborne because it’s carried on very small, very light particles so it’s airborne for a long time and then it sticks to things – clothes, walls, et cetera. Other animal allergens are similar.”
Dr. Matsui said that mice are by far the leading cause of asthma in the Baltimore area.
In 2005, she conducted a study in which the homes of 100 children with asthma in Baltimore were inspected for mouse allergen both in the air and in settled dust. Mouse allergen was found in dust samples from all of the homes that were tested and in 85 to 90 percent of air samples from the children’s bedrooms.
Even a house kept pristinely clean may have mice and other asthma triggers. With the trash in the alleys harboring pests, keeping a home free of problems requires a commitment to cleaning and, for renters, a good landlord who will fix small cracks and holes. Without vigilance, the danger of asthma can still find its way inside.
Trash adds to the problem
On S. Mount Street in Carrollton Ridge, Tom Waugh studies a large pile of trash that’s blocking a sidewalk.
“Trash attracts trash,” said Waugh, who special investigations unit division chief at Baltimore Housing. If an alley is covered in garbage, illegal dumpers who drive through the neighborhood feel free to empty more trash there – which can begin a cycle that ends with people in nearby houses getting sick.
At the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, Ezinne Chinemere says getting rid of trash is key to a neighborhood’s health. “If you have a lot of trash in your backyard or your alley — you’re going to get rats, you’re going to get mice, you’re going to get roaches,” said Chinemere, a senior health educator there. [Read Q&A with Chinemere]
The number of forlorn vacant rowhouses makes things worse.
According to data collected by the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, almost 28 percent of residential properties in Southwest Baltimore are vacant or abandoned — which neighborhood leaders say makes them more susceptible to neighborhood dumping.
“The trash is worse than the drugs,” Dawn Ford said. “The man next door, he’ll get out there and clean the streets, all the way up and down. I said [to him], ‘You’re doing a thankless job.’ ”
In an alley off the 2000 block of Ramsay Street, three stray cats wander behind a row of houses. When a large rat emerges from one of the trash-strewn backyards, the startled cats race off.
Protecting against pests that live in Carrollton Ridge is no simple task, and some solutions can send more asthma triggers into the air.
Vigorous cleaning with too many chemicals and anti-bacterial products – air fresheners, bleach, Lysol — can be a problem, since they can release volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, Chinemere said.
“You walk into someone’s house who has sprayed air freshener from top to bottom, you can’t breathe,” she said. “Can you imagine someone with asthma going into that?”
Not every resident has to rely on the drastic pesticide practices Dawn Ford and has employed against her roach problem. There are other pest-removal products and services that do work. The problem is, they cost a lot.
A mouse extermination treatment can cost upwards of $200, with a one- to two-month warranty, pest-control companies say.And roach extermination in a small rowhouse in southwest Baltimore could run $300.
Ford, who spends much of her day in a wheelchair and lives on less than $500 a month in Social Security, said she relies on Sarge, her 10-year-old dachshund, to kill any mice that enter her rowhome.
She said that Sarge has killed about 400 mice in his lifetime. Sarge is her most affordable solution to keeping mice out of her rowhome.
In Carrollton Ridge, asthma is part of a cycle linked to housing and poverty.
Old houses don’t receive proper maintenance. Poor maintenance lets roaches, mice and rats in. Trash collects and harbors pests. Pests trigger asthma, which consumes the time and money of residents trying to keep the problem at bay.
Many Carrollton Ridge residents can’t afford to fix up their homes or can’t convince a landlord to help. So the cycle begins again.
Asthma does not have a cure, but it can be controlled. Chinemere, at the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, said education is the best way to help families take charge of the problem.
That means explaining how to keep pests out and how to safely keep things clean.
“Telling somebody that you can make their kids’ asthma better by not using the dollar air freshener they got from the Family Dollar makes a big difference, Chinemere said. “You’re giving a family control.”