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Sewage in my home and hazardous to my health

Dominique Maria Bonessi

In Baltimore, residents have faced sewage backups in their homes for years which, says one Johns Hopkins University researcher, could be hazardous for your health.

Linda Batts takes great pride her home on Gwynns Falls Parkway where she has lived for 62 years.

“It is an incredible legacy," says Batts. "My parents were the first African Americans in this community and they bought the house approximately 67 years ago.”

Batts says she’s had sewage back-ups for as long as she can remember.

“I remember as a child, my father using the snake, the old manual snake," says Batts.

After years and years of drudgery and cleaning up messes, and airing out the house, Batts finally managed to replace all the sewer pipes in her home.

“That resolved one aspect of the back-ups in the house," says Batts. "But it didn’t resolve all of them.”

The sewage back-ups continued. In early 2000, Batts came back from a week-long business trip to find sewage water pouring from her basement bathroom.

“This is where it started," Batts explains as she gives a tour of her basement.

"The whole tub was filled and the toilet. And it filled up and spilled out and saturated everything. And moved over towards the stairs and the back of the basement.”

Today, Batts has a tenant renting her basement and you could never tell it had flooded. There’s new, plush purple wall to wall carpet, purple couches, and a salvaged high top table.

Baltimore city has pledged to end sewage back-ups by 2030 under the current modified wastewater consent decree. While many residents think that timeline is too slow, Jeffrey Raymond, spokesperson for the Department of Public Works, says the department needs to examine the size and capacity of existing pipes, dig up city streets, and replace with new sewage pipes.

“It’s a complex time, consuming and very invasive process and even if we had a lot more money to throw at it even though we don’t," says Raymond. "We can’t just change the time it takes for a massive project like that.”

While timing and cost of this project are in question, Kellogg Schwab, director of Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Water and Health, says residents like Batts should be concerned for their health when sewage devastates the home. A quick science lesson.

“So the three major groups are bacteria, viruses, and protozoa," explains Schwab.

The most common types of bacteria says Schwab are E.coli and Salmonella cause gastrointestinal illnesses.

“Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea," Schwab lists. "It is also important to realize, it is not just bacteria.”

City health officials said via email they don’t keep track of bacteria from sewage back-ups, nor do they have anyone to speak about the issue. Schwab says that while bacteria can be removed quickly, viruses and protozoa are a different story.

“Whereas, viruses take a little harder to treat and clean them. And then the protozoa are the toughest and the ones that can persist the longest," says Schwab.

So how do you clean up sewage in your home?

Well, Schwab says the Center for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency recommend wearing protective gear—coveralls, rubber gloves, breathing masks, that sort of thing—and using soap, water, and chlorine. But sometimes long after that is removed mold can remain.

"It can essentially grow behind the particle board or behind other parts of the wall there. And so you can have mold be present for an extended period of time if it is not completely dried out," says Schwab.

Linda Batts says over the last 15 years she has spent more than $35000 out-of-pocket to tear out and replace carpeting and drywall to avoid being infected by any of these microscopic bacteria.

“There is no measure of comfort that any tenant or landlord has after having gone through that experience," says Batts. "And wondering when it will happen again.”

For now that may be all Batts can do.

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