The Unexpected Present

The Killing Fields on the Eastern Shore

Corn Harvest 2023

October 2023. It’s a different atmosphere, a different world of medical care, when I took Yuri out of rural Eastern Shore and into Georgetown, Washington, DC. I immediately requested a transfer to Johns Hopkins on Wednesday evening, October 5, in the community-based ER. At first, the young ER doctor looked stunned and asked if I was angry with him. After a harrowing day, I calmed my nerves, changed my tune, and turned my attention to my husband, whose heart was racing like Seabiscuit out of the gate, unable to catch his breath. Shortness of breath since the morning.

The day heated up quickly. Appointments for measuring compression boots, a primary care physician’s visit with a nurse practitioner, chiropractic care, and a spa treatment for his kidney (dialysis). I was sweating. I can’t wait for the cooler weather to come. We missed the summer with the rollercoaster of a medical-ride-to-hell-and-back since our move from New Jersey to the Eastern Shore, Maryland, five months ago.

May and June were wet months, rain, rain, and more rain. August and September were hotter than usual. Humidity was the perfect recipe for growing mold on damp and super hot days—corn mold. We live in Chestertown. Cornfields for miles and miles surround it. Cornfields that are turning into what we suspect to be the cause of a health crisis.

The midnight shift ER doctor told us Yuri’s heart was under control, and she could discharge him. I was frightened at the prospect and astounded at the lack of knowledge of the impact the surrounding environment can have on persons with health issues and concerns. I requested a transfer to a hospital away from the Eastern Shore as soon as possible. She almost smiled, “What am I going to tell them that you are afraid of the cornfields?” Yes. Very much.

Corn has always been associated with fertility, abundance, and the agricultural cycle. Myths and legends among indigenous agricultural tribes in North America honor the Corn Mother. There’s a Corn Moon around the September full moon. Norman Rockwell illustrated dozens of images exalting corn at the dinner table, becoming as traditional as apple pie. A field of corn waving in the wind is a familiar summer sight. Think Fields of Dreams.

Lately, I have nightmares worse than Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. Especially the mist that shapeshifts across the night roads, driving through the wide stances of fields. Rows upon rows as far as the crow flies. It’s not a mist. It’s corn mold. You bet I’m scared.
Reports from universities across the country state the dangers of moldy corn harvesting. Slow grain drying, delayed harvest, and irregular climate change affect corn that may be contaminated with toxins. Sampling and testing that misses hot spots may lead to incorrect problem estimation.

Dust in grain harvest may contain particles contaminated with toxins and mold. High-temperature drying will not kill the mold. Any mycotoxins (toxins that mold produces) formed before drying remain in the corn, a concern if the corn is fed to livestock or ethanol processing plants. Breathing grain dust can have adverse effects on the human respiratory system. In 2019, NPR News headlined Growing Corn is a Major Contributor to Air Pollution, Study Finds. Air pollution is the most significant environmental health risk factor in the United States. Big Ag contributes in several ways, such as through fertilizer and pesticide use that seeps into the local waterways and drinking water.

Despite the town’s efforts to allay contamination fears, “proudly announcing their system has not violated a maximum contaminant level or any other quality standard.” The caution included that “some people may be more vulnerable to contaminants in drinking water than the general population, i.e., persons with immune system disorders, older people, infants can be particularly at risk from infections.” They forgot to mention animals. My cat, Nell, has been affected. Her physicality changed drastically since our move. I don’t see much wildlife around our neck of the woods.

Corn is the largest crop produced in the United States. According to university studies, this single crop significantly contributes to air pollution with an atmospheric particulate matter called PM 2.5. It’s small enough to be an irritant when inhaled and absorbed into the bloodstream, causing cardiovascular problems and respiratory illness. I am familiar with particulates since the Canadian wildfire air pollution made headlines in June. Before that, nothing was associated with the start of Yuri’s How I Spent My Summer on my blog, theunexpectedpresent.com/

According to the National Library of Medicine, scientific evidence about the impacts of air pollution on human health is real. Breathing dirty air causes respiratory illness, heart disease, and possible stroke. The economic and medical costs are staggering. Perhaps producing industrial agricultural corn in densely populated areas can be more damaging than the economic benefit it provides. Benefits that outweigh the risks. Hmm. Medical teams continue to spew this mantra fostered by Big Pharma peddling their wares– about benefits that outweigh the risks. But that’s another story.

Governments have treated air pollution as an environmental issue. Recently, it has started being treated as a health issue. Both of these approaches identify cleaner air as a policy goal. However, policy goals must be revised because they can be undermined by the bottom line through flexibility, discretion, and the absence of accountability. If that’s what’s going on the Eastern Shore, it’s a big problem. Health crisis. We can’t live there.

Clean air and clean water are essential to human health and well-being, as noted in the 2010 United Nations General Assembly resolution, recognizing that access to clean water is a basic human right. And in the Executive Order on Revitalizing Our Nation’s Commitment to Environmental Justice for All, the White House Press Release signed by President Biden on April 21, 2023 (two days after our historic/hysteric move from New Jersey to Maryland), “By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, and in order to advance environmental justice, it is hereby ordered: Safe access to food and water is also a right that every human being must have. Building sustainable cities that allow easy access to transport and are free of pollution that can affect human health is also part of giving environmental justice to people.” There’s more in the E.O. to read.

Yuri’s stay in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., was a relief. In a private room with lots of light from a window facing west and overlooking the Georgetown University soccer field, he can get a little peace from the frantic pace in the rural hospital settings. At first, Pulmonary and Infectious Disease teams flocked to his room with questions, and the eager residents often reminded me of an episode on the TV series House. By the holiday weekend (Indigenous Peoples Day), as his breathing improved, interaction slowed, and a bit of restful interludes were healing until another blood draw was required. The Cardio team has taken the lead as Afib took his heart hostage.

My drive from the Eastern Shore takes me through the cornfields awaiting harvest that may be completed by the end of the month. An announcement in the local paper, Tidewater Trader, “reminded citizens in rural areas to expect an increase in low-flying airplanes or helicopters through October 10th. It’s the time of the year that farmers enrolled in Maryland’s Cover Crop program are aerially seeding small grains in their fields to help protect water quality in local streams and the Chesapeake Bay and improve their soil’s health.” No mention of human health.

The other night, I saw the mold mist in the air against the night sky under a ceiling of clouds. I watched its feathery wisps flowing and folding overhead until blended with the cloud covering. Milky white, eerily similar to the gunk that inhabited Yuri’s lungs during the first hospital stay after the second Pfizer vaccine shot. The sight of this living thing, a swirling entity hovering and floating over sections of harvest cornfields, sent a chill down my spine. I cannot come back with Yuri to these dangerous health hazards. It’s the Killing Fields on the Eastern Shore.

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