Birds Of A Feather, Get Healthy Together

Over the past few months, our blog has talked about A LOT of different aspects for health and wellness. With so much information, and so little time (and—let’s be honest—energy), it’s hard to know where to get started… much less take action. So today, I want to tie a few of those elements together in one activity: BIRDING!

No? Not exciting? Hear me out first!

Birding is a great activity if you are just starting to exercise (and aren’t exactly excited by the idea of sweating) or if you’re a parent who struggles to get outside with the kids. Birding naturally gets you moving outside, relieves stress, and provides an opportunity for family playtime. I mean, that’s three birds with one… errrr, never mind.

Janet Bogue, a volunteer for the Audubon Naturalist Society, says the 1-mile Beginner Bird Walk at the Woodend Sanctuary, located in Chevy Chase, is not strenuous. “The walk takes an hour and we stop a lot to look at birds. It’s not an aerobic activity.”

If you’ve been telling yourself that you need to get moving, and still haven’t managed to do anything, then finding a local bird walk may be a great start. While you may not reach the doctor-recommended intensity levels, a guided walk will give you a fun, social, and educational way to get moving. And sometimes, just moving is a good start to creating a more active lifestyle.

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The walk may not get your heart racing, but watching a Pileated Woodpecker hammer at a tree may.

Birding also doesn’t require much, other than a pair of shoes with good traction. You may want hiking boots for muddy conditions, but sneakers often work just fine. Binoculars are also handy, but if you don’t have them, check if the guide will provide extras. ANS always has a few for the Beginner Bird Walks.

If you have kids, find a guided walk at a nearby nature center or just start at the bird feeders. You’ll see lots of birds at the feeders, which keeps it fun for the kids. Let your kids take the lead and watch their self-confidence grow. Janet loves having kids on walks because of their keen eyesight. “I need their eyes! They can spot things immediately! And when they do, they feel like they are really helping.”

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Fall and winter are surprisingly great seasons to start birding. A lot of the flashy birds that spend summers in Maryland begin migrating south, but you may still be able to spot more northerly birds as they fly through on their way to warmer areas. According to Janet, “In the fall, we get more hawks than usual. And since they ride the thermals, you can see them in the middle of the day. And in the winter, the leaves are off the tree, so it’s much easier to find birds.”

Getting started is as easy as visiting your local nature center. A lot of nature centers host guided bird walks or similarly easy nature hikes. You can also check out the local chapter of the Maryland Ornithological Society. If you’re ready to go now, check out some of Maryland’s top birding spots, grab your binoculars and identification list, and get walking… and stopping… and looking… and walking… and looking.


Editor’s Note: The Audubon Nature Society (ANS) holds free Beginner Bird Walks almost every Saturday of the year at the Woodend Sanctuary, from 8:00-9:00am. On October 20, ANS will hold two Beginner Bird Walks, one in English, and one in Spanish. While ANS’s Beginner Bird Walks are for adults only, they also host Family Nature Walks every first Saturday of the month at 9:00. Check out their Events Page to find the walk for you.

ANS is also a host organization for the University of Maryland Extension’s Master Naturalist volunteer program. If you’re interested in volunteering for an environmental organization, Master Naturalists will provide you with 60 hours of training and, once certified, you can help with a wide variety of support opportunities, including restoration projects, research, and public awareness and education.


What To Do When Buying A House With A Septic System

It’s SepticSmart Week, so we’ll be discussing septic systems all… wait for it… week! Today’s post on septic systems is the second in a series about buying a house with a well and/or septic. Last week, when I mentioned that wells and septic systems are two of the most expensive appliances you’ll own, it’s particularly true for septic systems. These systems are designed to last 15-40 years, if maintained correctly. But for lots of owners, out of sight means out of mind, and these systems are often overlooked.

If you’re looking to buy a house, you will freak out at some point (if not several) about how much money you’re spending. But if that house comes with a septic system, you should definitely spend the extra money to get a licensed septic professional to inspect your system.

Why? Because if you don’t know that the septic tank is failing until after you’ve bought the house, you can expect to pay between $3000-5000 to replace a tank that you’ve only recently come to own. And if the system’s drainfield is failing, you can add in another $10,000 (or $25,000 if the system has a sand mound). So getting that septic professional’s review may save you thousands.

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You won’t know if the owner of the house that you want to buy is SepticSmart. But you can be by hiring a licensed septic professional to make sure the system is in good condition, and then taking care of the system once it becomes yours. (Image by the EPA.)

When hiring a licensed septic professional to inspect a system, don’t settle for a dye test, where they flush a dye pack down the toilet and see if dye bubbles up in the yard. Dye tests do not provide a thorough review of the system. Instead, you want a state-approved inspection, which includes a homeowner interview, record search, site and system inspection, hydraulic load test, and final report.

You can also personally look (and smell!) for signs of trouble when first visiting a house. Look for puddles, spongy areas, bright green grass, or overgrown vegetation in the area near the tank or drainfield. Another obvious indicator of a malfunctioning septic system is a strong smell of sewage in the yard or house.

It’s easy for homeowners to assume their system is operating just fine when there aren’t obvious signs of problems. It’s not like you get a maintenance guide when you first buy a house! But the cost of replacing a failing septic system is not one that you want to take on as a new homeowner. Avoid the stress and expense by getting a licensed septic professional to thoroughly examine the system. And once that system is yours, make sure you take care of it.

What To Do When Buying A House With A Private Well

Editor’s Note: Buying a house is stressful and expensive. When I was buying my first house, I remember thinking, “Where is all this money coming from?!” Not only is the house, itself, the most expensive thing you’ll ever buy, but then you have closing costs and fees for every possible inspection. So, it’s easy to understand why buyers may overlook the importance of private well and septic systems: if you feel like you’re hemorrhaging money, the last thing you want to do is spend hundreds more dollars on systems that you barely understand. But not only are these systems two of the most expensive appliances that you’ll own, improper maintenance can lead to health problems. So in the next two blog posts, I’ll provide information to help give you peace of mind when buying your next home with a well and/or septic—starting with wells.

Having a private well means not having to pay a utility bill—but safe drinking water isn’t free. Lots of drinking water contaminants are invisible, tasteless, and odorless. You may never know they’re in your water until you or your family members experience health issues, like gastrointestinal distress, respiratory difficulty, neurological and developmental effects, and possibly cancer. Pregnant women, infants, children, seniors, or family members with compromised immune systems are at particular risk.

We recommend that home buyers take the following steps to better understand the condition of a well and possible drinking water concerns. In some cases, we do recommend that you spend a little more money ahead of time to minimize the chance of surprise expenses at the end of the transaction, or worse, after you’ve moved in.

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Stains on sinks and tubs, or corroded fixtures, can indicate different types of contaminants. Blue-green staining like this indicates lead in the water. (Photo by Kelsey Pieper.)

Look for signs of water quality issues when inspecting the house.
Are there any stains in the sinks, tubs, and/or toilets? Are there any signs of corrosion on the plumbing fixtures and faucets?

Inquire about water treatment devices.
Knowing the type of device, manufacturer, and device model will provide a sense of water quality concerns, required maintenance practices, and operational costs. We recommend using devices that have been certified by the National Sanitation Foundation or the Water Quality Association.

Use a state-certified water testing lab to conduct a COMPREHENSIVE water analysis.
Many lenders will require tests for specific contaminants, but these usually do not include health-related contaminants. We recommend getting a comprehensive testing package that includes health-impairing contaminants. Most state-certified labs offer packages that you can add onto as needed. If you have pregnant women, infants or young children, make sure to include all of the most important contaminants of concern.

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This is an example of a wellhead in good condition. Not all well caps look like the one on this well. The important thing is to make sure that it is a sanitary well cap. (Photo by Harford County Health Department.)

Learn how to spot good wellheads, then check the house’s wellhead.
Everything on a wellhead should be secure and in good condition—no cracks, holes, or corrosion. The area surrounding the wellhead should slope away in all directions and be clear of debris and overgrown plants.

Hire a licensed well professional to inspect the system.
Typical home inspectors don’t have the expertise or specialized equipment to properly diagnose issues with a well system. We recommend hiring a licensed well professional who can run a yield test, which will run the system for an extended period of time, allowing the professional to gauge the system’s condition. Yield tests typically costs $300-400, but many companies also offer modified yield tests for $150-200, which is not as thorough, but still gives a general sense of the system’s condition.

What You Shouldn’t Learn from Celebrity Chefs

In today’s culinary culture, we get to learn how to cook and find new recipes through so many outlets. Gone are the days of Julia, Jacque, and Yan­—PBS is not the only cooking channel in town! Today, we have networks dedicated to cooking shows and finding the next celebrity chef. Publishers release so many cookbooks that newspapers around the country rank the best ones each year. And rather than scouring the “Joy of Cooking”, you can go online, enter the ingredients you have at home, and get thousands of hits from cooking sites, blogs, and videos to inspire your next meal. I can’t even check Facebook without getting sidetracked by a flashy, 45-second video that makes me want to try that green smoothie, molten chocolate souffle, and slow-cooked ribs RIGHT NOW!!!!! (I’m not even going to include those links because if I had to go find them, I’d never finish this post.)

While these entertaining and engaging sources help level-up your cooking skills and party menu, research shows that they rarely provide accurate steps for safely preparing your food. So, you could be serving your family and friends a beautiful roast with a side of sick leave.

A study of almost 1500 recipes showed that 99.7% of those recipes provided “subjective indicators” to determine doneness. You’re probably familiar with the typical guidance: set oven to whatever degrees and cook for however many minutes, or until golden brown. But all ovens differ, and the outside of the meat can often be golden brown, while the inside is still pink and bloody. The best way to ensure a safe cook is to check the food’s internal temperature.

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“It looks golden brown, but is the breast meat really done? Is it overdone?” Anyone who has cooked a Thanksgiving turkey knows this dilemma. Only a meat thermometer can ensure a safe cook, and keep you from over-cooking. Pro Tip: Just toss the useless pop-up timer away. (Photo by the USDA.)

Another study checked how often celebrity chefs practiced safe food handling skills on their shows and found that they weren’t modeling safe food handling to their viewers. Important food safety practices—like washing hands before and during food preparation, using a separate cutting board for raw meat, and checking meat with a meat thermometer—were rarely done.

Since food safety is rarely demonstrated or directed, UME Educator Dr. Shauna Henley, advises people to be flexible when learning food safety practices. As one of the primary researchers behind the “Don’t Wash Your Chicken!” campaign, she knows how hard it can be to accept new practices that may differ from how your grandma or mom cooked. She notes, “Science has a way with keeping you on your toes.” So to keep home cooks abreast of the latest food safety practices, Shauna hosts Kitchen Kaizen workshops, which cover safe food handling, hand washing, managing leftovers, and more.

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It’s hard to unlearn some of the habits that we learned from our parents and grandparents. But ensuring that your meals are prepped and cooked safely can keep everyone in the family healthy. Take a Kitchen Kaizen workshop to learn all the newest food safety practices and then teach them to your kids. Just remind them that they may need to adapt in the future as newer research inevitably shows us how we can improve even more.

If you can’t attend one of Shauna’s workshops, but want to learn more, you can also contact your nearest Family and Consumer Science Educator. And, in the meantime, check out some new and delicious recipes that include steps to ensure a safe cook.

Shout Out to Water!

Today is Groundwater Protection Day, so, I’m taking you on a deep (and dorky) dive into one of my favorite topics: H 2 the izz-O! (Did I mention dorky?)

But I can’t just celebrate groundwater, because…. ahem, the WATER CYCLE! (I could insert the diagram, but I know that’s not why you’re here.) Let’s just say that thanks to Mother Nature’s built-in recycling process, all the water on the planet has always been and always will be the same water. The stream water that a triceratops drank (and peed) is the same water that you drink (and pee). So it’s all connected.

Global Freshwater Volume_USGS
All the water that has been on Earth may be the same throughout time, but only a small fraction of that water is freshwater that we can drink. The largest ball on this map represents all the water on Earth. The medium-sized ball contains all the liquid freshwater, so everything not frozen in glaciers and icebergs. Groundwater makes up 99% of that ball. The other 1% is water found in rivers and lakes, which is represented by the smallest ball. (Image by the USGS.)

And because of where water flows along its journey through the recycling process, and how happy it is to bring the harmful chemicals it meets along the way, water can expose you to a lot of different health risks. Just look at the headlines. Flint, MI residents will be dealing with the physical and emotional legacy of the lead found in their water for years to come. And Florida residents are seeking medical attention from the toxic blue-green algae that is feeding on the fertilizers people put on their grass and crops, which the rain carried into creeks, canals, and lakes.

While Maryland isn’t immune to drinking water risks and beach closures, we have been relatively lucky, which makes it easy for us to take clean water for granted. But just think about all the most essential things you do in your morning routine alone—almost every step relies on water:

  • Bladder relief (Check!)
  • Coffee (Check!)
  • Shower (Check!)
  • Brush teeth (Check!)
  • Clean clothes (Check!)
  • Breakfast (Check! No matter what you eat, water is a major contributor to getting that food and drink on your table.)
  • Put dishes in the dishwasher (Eventually, check!)

And I haven’t even included how much water goes into making the products and electricity you used do all those things.

I mean, come on! How miserable would you feel if you couldn’t do all those things so easily? So take this moment to dork out with me about water. And then take some steps to keep our water clean and use it wisely.

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Cheers to you, H2O!

You can start here:

Breastfeeding Awareness: Know Your Workplace Rights

Editor’s Note: August may almost be over, but we can’t let it slip by without a note celebrating National Breastfeeding Awareness Month. Today’s post is brought to you by guest contributors Kavitha and Mira, from the University of Maryland Extension’s Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program.

From the early 1940’s, mothers chose to feed their infants formula instead of breastfeeding since many people—including health care professionals—believed that infant formula was more nutritious than breast milk. A global decline in breastfeeding led to a national movement emerging in the 1970’s, which worked to improve infant health and survival through the promotion of breastfeeding.

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Breastfeeding not only helps moms and babies bond, but both the milk and the physical act also provide lots of health benefits.

Research shows that human milk is uniquely tailored to meet the nutrition needs of human infants. Breast milk is both readily available and affordable, and it provides all the nutrients that infants need for their first six months of life. The act of breastfeeding also provides several benefits to moms and babies. Breastfeeding helps mother and baby bond. It reduces baby’s risk of ear infections, respiratory illnesses, sudden infant death syndrome, and hypertension. Breastfed babies are less likely to develop childhood obesity and certain childhood cancers. And breastfeeding helps moms lose weight and reduces the risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

Despite all of these benefits, the United States has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates among the high-income countries. More than 79% of US women start breastfeeding, but only an estimated 19% of these moms breastfeed exclusively for the first 6 months of their babies lives. Breastfeeding moms face many challenges, which all contribute to low rates of breastfeeding: lactation problems, employment and child care, lack of family and social support, embarrassment to breastfeed in public places, and lack of knowledge about the specific benefits of breastfeeding.

Considerable efforts have been made in recent decades to address some of these issues, including the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care), which created new protections for nursing mothers by amending the Fair Labor Standards Act. Earlier this year, all 50 states adopted the amendment which requires employers to provide most hourly wage-earning and some salaried employees with a private place—other than a bathroom—where nursing mothers can pump in privacy, away from coworkers and the public. Employees must be provided with reasonable accommodation to express milk and use a breast pump at work.

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If you pump at work, make sure you choose a breast pump that fits your needs. You should also store and prepare the milk properly. (Photo by Dirk Schumacher.)

These protections should be provided until the employee’s baby reaches one year of age. However, this law only applies to businesses/organizations that have more than 50 employees, so, not all women may benefit from these protections. Additionally, the law does not require the employer to pay for the time that an employee spends pumping.

If you experience a situation in Maryland in which your right to breastfeed is challenged, you can report noncompliance with the Maryland law to the Maryland Attorney General’s Consumer Protection Division. The Consumer Hotline is 410-528-8662. You can also file a complaint by e-mail to, or online.


About Kavitha and Mira:

Kavitha’s work focuses on the design, implementation, and evaluation of community-based nutrition and obesity prevention projects. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, crocheting and taking long walks with her husband and canine son.

Mira develops programs and supports strategies that help in the creation of healthy lifestyles for immigrant, refugee, and underserved communities. She has been a passionate advocate for breastfeeding as a strategy for reducing food insecurity and improving the health and survival of babies for over three decades.


MD State Parks Give Adults A Place To Play

Last week, we talked about the benefits of exercising outside, but if you have no idea where to start, than look no further than your closest state park. Our parks offer tons of ways to get active, from salsa dancing to stand-up paddleboarding. And if you’re lucky enough to live near Martinak, Tuckahoe, Rocky Gap, New Germany, Dan’s Mountain, or Patapsco Valley State Parks, then you get even more options through the Healthy Parks, Healthy People (HPHP) classes.

Maryland’s HPHP program started in the western parks about 3 years ago. Resident Ronni Matthews saw an advertisement of the scheduled events, which included hikes and “Wild Women Wednesdays”, a weekly program that connects women to nature while encouraging them to try new exercises. Since Ronni was already walking for exercise—and her initial response was, “I’m not a wild woman!”—she decided to try the hike. She reports, “It was very strenuous and I was the last one in the line.” But despite the sweaty and exhausting start, Ronni gradually attended more classes, like beach-front yoga and paddleboarding. Now, she tries to attend as many as she can, including Wild Women Wednesdays.

Despite her initial protests, Ronni (third from the left) is now one of the most dedicated “Wild Women”. (Photo by Jenna Linhart)

She says, “It’s the 3 F’s. The teachers are friendly—all fitness levels are welcome. The classes are fun. And the big kicker is, it’s free!”

In fact, you can even save money. A typical park-sponsored kayaking program would include a rental fee for the kayak. But HPHP kayaking classes provide the kayaks for free!

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Paddleboards would also be free during an HPHP-sponsored paddleboarding class. This definitely looks like a fun and friendly activity! (Photo by Jenna Linhart)

HPHP Programs are spreading across the state. According to Jenna Linhart, the HPHP Coordinator for Rocky Gap State Park, “If the classes aren’t already offered at a park, it’s on the staff’s radar.” She says, “Our goal is to build a stronger connection with the environment. People might come to the park for a specific workout, but the benefits they receive will be greater than what they get from the workout itself. Fresh air, birds singing, and a beautiful view can have profound effects on people, and hopefully lead to a stronger connection and appreciation for nature.”

Ronni agrees, “I feel so much better exercising outdoors. And exercising outside helped me develop a stronger environmental ethic. If I’m kayaking and I see a plastic bottle on the water, I want to pick it up.”

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Ronni, on the right, and other class participants kayak and clean up the lake. (Photo by Jenna Linhart)

The HPHP community has also broadened Ronni’s class options. For instance, the High-Intensity Interval Training teacher has invited Ronni to her non-HPHP classes, giving Ronni an indoor option during the winter.

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HPHP classes entice people to try something new, like meditation…
… and Hula Hoop Interval Training.
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And sometimes, it just gives people a more beautiful place to do their usual workout. (Photos by Jenna Linhart)

Each park organizes their own schedule, so if you want to attend an HPHP class, check out the events calendar, search by keyword “Healthy Parks” and category “Parks”. Most classes do not require pre-registration, unless they have limited equipment, like kayaks or paddleboards. The parks rely heavily on local volunteers to lead classes. So if you want to volunteer your expertise and maybe get a free weekend of camping, contact your nearest park.

Get your well water tested. Your babies will thank you.

Today’s post is for all the folks living in a house with a private well. You may not realize it, but if you own the house, you are responsible for taking care of the well and making sure the water is safe to drink. Since most of the contaminants that can impair your health are odorless, colorless, and tasteless, the only way to know what’s hiding in there is to test your water. If you rent the house, you should inquire with your landlord about getting the water tested.

The University of Maryland Extension recommends routine testing for all residents who drink well water, but it’s especially important to test your water if you have pregnant women, infants, and young children in the house. Infants and children are more susceptible to injury and damage, as their brains and organs are still developing. Infants—particularly ones that drink formulaare at even greater risk since they consume more water for their size than adults and older children.

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Pregnant women, babies, and children are particularly vulnerable to unsafe drinking water. The only way to make sure your water is safe for your family is to get it tested by a state-certified water testing lab. Photo by Jennifer Murray.

If you haven’t had your water tested in the past 3 years or more, we recommend getting a comprehensive test that includes the following contaminants. Contact your county office to inquire whether you should also test for local contaminants of concern, such as arsenic or manganese. They can also refer you to the state-certified water testing labs that serve your area. The lab will provide you with a report to indicate the level of each contaminant and whether it exceeds the EPA drinking water standard for public drinking water systems.

Coliform bacteria: This group of bacteria does not present a specific risk, but the presence of them could indicate the presence of more harmful bacteria, like E. coli, which may cause gastrointestinal distress.

Nitrate: This chemical is found in fertilizer, manure, and human waste, and when introduced into a baby’s body, can lead to “Blue Baby Syndrome”. Essentially, the infant will not be able to breathe properly and could suffocate. So if you have a septic tank that hasn’t been pumped in several years, I would also recommend scheduling a pump-out.

pH: pH indicates the water’s acidity or alkalinity. Acidic water can damage plumbing and leach dangerous metals from the pipes and fittings, like lead and copper.

Lead: Lead + drinking water = Flint water crisis, right? What’s the likelihood that lead is in your well water? Our colleagues at Virginia’s Household Water Quality Program report that research from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina resulted in 1 in 7 houses having high lead in water. This metal can cause irreversible damage to a child’s brain, nervous system, and other organs, resulting in developmental delays, lower IQs, and behavioral disorders.

Copper: Like lead, copper does not naturally occur in the water, but is leached out of the plumbing from acidic water. Copper can cause gastrointestinal distress, and liver or kidney damage.

If you would like to learn more about protecting your drinking water, contact me to schedule a seminar for your neighborhood.