Alabama residents struggle with 'America's dirty secret'

Correspondent Bill Whitaker took a deep dive into the lack of sewage treatment affecting residents of Lowndes County, Alabama during Sunday night's episode of 60 Minutes.

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. "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."

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 and treatment 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 Whitaker in one resident's backyard.

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 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," reported Whitaker.

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, the department is not responsible. Regardless, 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 did not know why the state hasn't stepped in to solve the problem.

Video Transcript

BILL WHITAKER: I have seen things like this in Haiti and parts of Southeast Asia, but I've never seen anything like this in the United States.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: That's why we call it America's dirty secret.

- On 60 Minutes Sunday, correspondent Bill Whitaker took a deep dive into the lack of sewage treatment affecting residents of Lowndes County, Alabama. What White House advisor, Catherine Coleman Flowers is calling, America's dirty secret.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: We all go to the bathroom, so we all should have access to sanitation. But I've had people to tell me, it's not sexy, the media is not going to be interested in that.

BILL WHITAKER: It's difficult. It's difficult to discuss, it's difficult for us to cover.

- Flowers has been battling this long-standing public health failure in Lowndes County for 20 years. And after going door to door to survey 3,000 homes, found that 2/3 of the homes had failing systems, or no systems at all. Even worse, the unsanitary conditions have even had an effect on the residents health, according to tropical disease specialist, Dr. Rogelio Mejia, who tested the stool and soil from residents properties.

BILL WHITAKER: 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.

- So why has nothing been done? According to Sherry Bradley at the State Department of Public Health, they're not responsible. But she has taken it upon herself to start a pilot project on her own.

BILL WHITAKER: This is a big problem. Why is the state not taking the reins on this to solve a statewide problem?

SHERRY BRADLEY: I don't know.

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