Healthy Outdoor Spaces & Environmental Pollution

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A plastic bottle floats in the Darby Creek.

The first time my partner and I used our inflatable tandem kayak (yes, I know that’s very dorky but we’re renters and don’t have space for a real kayak) we took it to the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum to go out in Darby Creek. We had been to the Heinz before, but on foot. The Heinz is the nation’s first “urban refuge,” established in 1972 to preserve the marshland and the ecosystem that relies on it.

Last year while I was taking a class on environmental public health for my MPH degree, we had Josh Barber, the EPA Remedial Project Manager at the Clearview Landfill come speak to us about Superfund sites. The Clearview Landfill is located above the Heinz, while the Folcroft Landfill is located downstream, partially in the Heinz. Both landfills are Superfund designated sites, which are highly polluted areas identified by the government for remedial action in the interest of environmental and human health.

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That big body of water is the Heinz refuge. Image from: https://response.epa.gov/site/site_profile.aspx?site_id=5864

So this was in the back of my mind, but I didn’t think much of it until we we lugging our equipment out and passed a paddle boarder who was leaving the Creek. He asked if we were headed down to the boat launch.

“It’s gross,” he said. He explained he’d been in bodies of water all around Philadelphia, but Darby Creek seemed to be the most litter-filled and brown. He said he was glad he was an experienced paddle boarder and didn’t fall in. My partner and I got our kayak out and went out anyway, but on the water, it was hard to not think about litter since every few feet or so, we passed more plastic bottles, condoms, soda cans, and unidentifiable plastic pieces.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service page for the Heinz even lists out 10 points of interest for those going out in canoes and kayaks to look for, which includes the Folcroft Landfill, a Sun Oil tank, and a sewage treatment plant. Scenic!

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It’s hard to escape visual reminders of the pollution that impacts Darby Creek
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Trash collects in little islands along with fallen branches in Darby Creek

For people living in large, urban areas like Greater Philadelphia, access to nice outdoor spaces is really important for human health. I grew up in Maine, and access to nature was definitely something I took for granted because it just… wasn’t something I had to think about. It was everywhere. Since I’ve lived in Philadelphia for almost 10 years, getting out into green spaces is something I have to be more intentional about.

In my public health classes we frequently discuss interventions that are aimed at improving population access to outdoor spaces and increasing the amount of time people spend outdoors being physically active. In Philadelphia, pediatric doctors are now even prescribing children with time out in nature as part of the NaturePHL partnership to increase physical activity.  Even small modifications to urban environments, like cleaning and greening vacant lots, can have an impact of residents’ health and stress levels.

So… what happens when those outdoor spaces are polluted? 

Environmental pollution has very real impacts on human health. For the Eastwick community that surrounds the Heinz and the Folcroft and Clearview Landfills, they have long reported elevated rates of asthma and cancer, believed to have come from their polluted environment besieged by frequent floods. Dr. Marilyn Howarth (who taught the class I took when I originally learned about the Heinz as a Superfund site) recently did an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer where she spotlighted the issues in Eastwick:

If your only exposure is to a particular chemical in the soil that might be left over from a hazardous waste site, in and of itself, it might not pose a very big risk to you for cancer or some other health effect. But say you are being exposed at the same time to air pollution from a nearby highway, and you’re also close to refineries that have emissions, even if those emissions are lower than allowed by their permit. Adding all these together, the opportunity for these exposures to cause you harm increases.  The varied exposures  might be working on the same body parts and the same mechanisms of causing disease. That cumulative exposure might mean you’re more likely to get the disease than if you’re exposed to any one toxic chemical singly.

This concept of cumulative exposure is pretty important, because interacting with one’s accessible outdoor environment is generally thought to be healthy, however, many people are not so lucky if the actual environment is itself unhealthy! Studies have found that poor, minority-majority neighborhoods are more likely to be exposed to higher levels of air pollution, and that minorities and low-income individuals are more likely to live near a toxic waste site.  In old cities like Philadelphia, lead-contaminated soil is a concern for developers, gardeners and children playing outside.

The amount of trash in a space is often a factor in whether you decide to hang out there or not. Trash is unfortunately pretty much ever-present in Philadelphia (we’re trying to be better!), and on top of the more-unseen environmental pollutants like air quality and lead in soil, I know for me personally, I’d much rather hang out in a park that appears clean than one filled with a bunch of gross litter. Clean outdoor spaces influence people to spend more time outside where they are more likely to be physically active and outdoor spaces in poor condition influence people to stay inside, where people are more likely to be sedentary.

That said, individual bottles and pieces of plastic in the creek aren’t probably a huge threat to my personal health, but I am definitely not going out of my way to touch the water. There are still tons of turtles, fish, and birds in the Heinz but their health is most likely negatively impacted by the amount of trash in their living space! People who have lots of easy, close access to pristine outdoor spaces are very privileged, but should also feel pressure to help maintain the cleanliness of those spaces. Trash is something that all humans produce, but where where that trash ends up is often where people already have less access to outdoor spaces and fewer social and economic resources to enjoy outdoor spaces.

So if you’re feeling kind of Not-In-My-Backyard about trash- remember the earth is everyone’s backyard! Clean spaces and less trash are better for everyone.