On CBS’s 60 Minutes, Sunday, correspondent Bill Whitaker took a deep dive into the lack of sewage treatment affecting residents of Lowndes County, Alabama.
According to Whitaker, Lowndes County is one of the most neglected corners of the country and the poverty rate is double the national average, which makes sanitary sewage disposal financially unattainable for the county’s residents.
“I have seen things like this in Haiti, and parts of Southeast Asia. I have never seen anything like this in the United States,” said a shocked Whitaker in one resident’s backyard.
Environmental health researcher and White House advisor Catherine Coleman Flowers has been battling this longstanding, and overlooked, public health failure in Lowndes County for 20 years. It is what she calls “America’s dirty secret.”
“If this was a community of more affluent people, this would’ve made headlines 20 years ago when I first started doing the work,” said Flowers. She added, “The reason that the situation has continued for so long is because of the type of benign neglect that has happened to Black communities, poor communities, and rural communities across the United States.”
Whitaker shared that the state of Alabama could not identify how many homes had this problem, so Flowers went door-to-door to find out. After surveying 3,000 homes, Flowers found that two-thirds had failing systems or no systems at all. Even worse, the unsanitary conditions have even had an effect on the residents’ health, according to a tropical disease specialist at Baylor College of Medicine, Dr. Rojelio Mejia, who tested the stool and soil from residents’ properties.
“Using a PCR test, like those used to detect Covid-19, they found small amounts of DNA from hookworms, a parasite that can cause stomach problems, anemia and developmental delays in children,” Whitaker reported of Mejia’s team’s findings.
“Our study in Alabama was a small study, about 55 patients, and the results were, we found over 30% of people in at-risk situations with poor sanitation had hookworm,” said Mejia, who was surprised by their results. “We were very shocked, and we actually had to run the sample several times to prove to ourselves that we found these numbers.”
So why has nothing been done? Lowndes County officials have claimed they don’t have the money, and the governor and the head of the State Department of Public Health declined to speak with 60 Minutes. However, according to Sherry Bradley at the State Department of Public Health, they’re not responsible. Nevertheless, she has taken it upon herself to start a pilot project on her own.
“I have begged money from a whole lot of people,” admitted Bradley, who also said she does not know why the state hasn’t stepped in to solve the problem.
In the end, Whitaker concluded, “Last month, just days after we spoke with Bradley, the DOJ launched an unprecedented civil rights investigation into whether the Alabama Department of Public Health is discriminating against Black residents in Lowndes, denying them access to proper sanitation.”
However, Whitaker also shared, “The department says it’s cooperating. We couldn’t find a single state program devoted to remedying the sewage problem in rural areas.”
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