In the US South, Climate Change Makes Poverty, Disease, Worse

July 6, 2018


When Pamela Rush flushes her toilet, the waste flows out the back of her sky blue mobile home through a yellowing plastic pipe and empties just a few yards away in a soggy pit of mud, weeds, and dead grass.

On a hot day in mid-May, Rush walked around her yard in rural Lowndes County, Alabama. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed her as she tiptoed near the pit. The smell of sewage was overwhelming.

Rush, 48, a soft-spoken woman with striking brown eyes, has straight-piped her family’s waste into her yard for almost two decades. Her home is on the edge of clay dirt road in the dense Alabama forest, miles from a municipal sewer system. Since Rush struggles with her health and is unable to work, she can’t afford the thousands of dollars it would cost to install an on-site septic system. This is her only option.

Mold grows throughout her house because of the damp, dark conditions, causing multiple respiratory problems for Rush and her two children. “I go to sleep in fear every night,” Rush said as she stared at the pit in her backyard, wiping sweat from her brow. “It don’t ever leave my mind.”

In the rural South, these conditions aren’t uncommon. Many communities from the Black Belt to Appalachia lack basic sewage and water infrastructure. In economically distressed regions like Lowndes County, it’s led to a surge in poverty-related tropical diseases often found in developing countries. Doctors and researchers have observed significant levels of parasitic infections like hookworm and toxocara and conditions for mosquito-borne illnesses like Zika and West Nile.

The risks are accelerated by erratic precipitation patterns and warming temperatures caused by global climate change. But local, state, and federal governments offer little funding to update infrastructure and local health departments have, so far, done little to address this public health crisis, forcing activists and researchers to address it themselves.

Less than a decade ago, Dr. Peter Hotez, founder of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, coined the term “neglected tropical diseases.” It refers to about 40 chronic and debilitating infections that occur in poverty-stricken places and also cause poverty due to long-term effects on productivity, child development, and pregnancy outcomes.

“I thought I knew what poverty looked like, but [the rural South] was a different animal with low-quality housing and environmental degradation,” Hotez said. “I thought there had to be tropical diseases here if you took the time to look. The problem was no one was willing to go into these poor areas to see if these diseases were here.”

He was right. His team discovered tropical diseases throughout southeastern Texas and Gulf Coast states like Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In Lowndes County, they found one third of 55 people tested positive for hookworm, a parasite spread through fecal matter in soil, and also found evidence of toxocariasis, spread through stray dogs and cats. In Houston and other places, researchers have seen cysticercosis, a tapeworm transmitted through human feces; murine typhus, a bacterial infection spread by fleas; Chagas disease, an infection that can lead to heart failure, spread through “kissing bugs” that live in lush vegetation; West Nile virus and Zika, spread through certain mosquito species.

The rates of these diseases are likely to be exacerbated by the effects of climate change. According to a 2017 study in Science, the American South stands to see the most economic losses from climate change. It predicts many counties will see 5 to 15 percent damages to their gross domestic product per year by the 2080s. More frequent extreme weather events like Hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida and Puerto Rico are hitting Southern coasts causing flooding and storm damage. A 2015 Climate Central study showed Alabama alone has thousands of vulnerable people and billions of dollars worth of property and infrastructure at risk of flooding.

Although Rush hasn’t yet been involved in a study, she suspects she and her children suffer from the conditions they’re living in. Her daughter has to be taken to Birmingham—three hours away—for sleep apnea treatments. Her 16-year-old son just graduated from middle school after being held back twice. Recent researchshows that soil-transmitted parasites like hookworm can cause developmental delays in children.

In May, the Alabama Department of Public Health announced it is teaming up with local officials in Lowndes County to run a survey about sewage infrastructure and public health. But Rush and several other local residents said they’ve never heard from local officials about addressing the issue.

Cantrell McAlpine, a Lowndes County public service commissioner who has lived in a rural part of the county since 1982, said that the local health department does not remain in contact with residents, which has led to a lack of supervision over how septic systems are installed or maintained.

“It’s something that could be rectified, but we need a good active health department with proper follow-ups to help people understand what you have to do,” McAlpine said.

The Lowndes County Public Health Department did not respond to request for comment. An Alabama Public Health Department spokesperson said that the agency and local health departments work with residents to bring septic systems into compliance.

According to Kristie Gutierrez, a science education professor at Old Dominion University who led a study on climate justice in the rural Southeast, tackling environmental injustices like poor sewage infrastructure and public health crises must begin with an understanding of how climate change is discussed in the South.

“Rural communities are very individualist in that they know they need to work on taking care of themselves and not solely rely on the government to do things for them,” Gutierrez said. “Where types of meetings will take place, like churches or schools, getting people to come and enjoy conversation and community—that’s very important in rural regions and in the South.”


2 Responses to “In the US South, Climate Change Makes Poverty, Disease, Worse”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Kewl. Next time climate change, poverty or parasites comes up on, I’ll toss in this video.

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