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Health Care, Heal Thyself

By Sharon Tregaskis
Urbanite Magazine

Every day, a fleet of nine trucks emblazoned with the moniker "Biomedical Waste Services" rumbles through the streets of Baltimore, patrolling from loading dock to loading dock, collecting everything from used needles to leftover chemotherapy drugs from three local hospitals and roughly five hundred doctors' and dentists' offices. Much of the refuse packs a toxic wallop: expired medications from pharmacies, mercury fixative used in pathology labs, and radioactive waste from the VA Hospital downtown. The 45,000 to 50,000 pickups made statewide by BWS trucks each year add up. The company collects more than 12,000 gallons of hazardous waste packed in Department of Transportation-approved drums, 1 to 2 million pounds of medical waste in telltale red plastic bags, and 100,000 pounds of computers and other "e-waste."

Decades back, steel was king in Baltimore. Today, the city runs on health care, which comprises the fastest-growing sector of the economy and serves as a linchpin of the Baltimore Development Corp.'s efforts to catalyze growth in the region. But behind the gleaming laboratories and white-coated doctors, the health care system has a dark side: Nationwide, hospitals produce nearly 4 billion pounds of trash each year. This river of refuse that flows out the back doors and into landfills, rivers, and the air we breathe has come to symbolize the excesses of a bloated, wasteful industry.

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