Lead in the soil, brownfields, illegal dumping sites, rat infestations — these aren’t the sorts of thing you’d see on your average city tour, but they’re the highlights of “urban environmentalist” Glenn Ross’s Toxic Tour of Baltimore. And he makes sure the windows are open. “I put it right up in their face – they’ve got to smell it, taste it, the whole nine yards,” he told Andrea Appleton, writing for Grist. “And at the end of the tour, they get it.”

Believe it or not, we have rats to thank for Ross’s current environmental justice activism:   “I started organizing around the rat problem in the area,” he told an interviewer in 2006. “I joined the neighborhood association, got very active, joined a number of different boards, and I realized that there was a lot going on in this area that residents weren’t aware of. As a new homeowner and a single parent for twenty-six years, I’m the type of guy who needs to know what’s going on in my community. And this is what really started me and got me involved in becoming a community advocate. So when people ask me how I got started I can honestly tell them a rat.”

After taking one of Ross’s bus rides through Baltimore’s urban public health disasters, it’s impossible not to realize that they are concentrated in poor, primarily black neighborhoods — what amounts to environmental racism, according to Ross. Living in toxic environments often leads to health issues, and the neighborhoods his tour travels through have higher rates of asthma, cancer, and lead poisoning.

Ross’s tours are primarily conducted for local college students, school groups, and churces, with the intent of showing them how environmental destruction wreaks havoc on a very local, very personal level. See that stormwater runoff gushing off roofs and feeding into the Harbor? See that pile of toxic construction scraps? How about that black sludge dripping down storm drains? All these things help contribute to the fact that Baltimoreans in some neighborhood have life expectancies that are up to twenty years longer than their neighbors, Appleton points out.

You can get a sense of Ross’s tours in the YouTube clip below — toxic smells not included:

YouTube video