Open-Air Sewage Pits in Alabama Getting United Nations' Attention

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A United Nations official recently visited Alabama’s Black Belt to report on poverty and claimed the area’s sewage disposal problems are the worst he’s seen in a First-World country.

The official, Philip Alston of Australia, was on a 15-day tour of the U.S. for his investigation in mid-December.

A local activist named Aaron Thigpen showed Alston a number of homes in Lowndes and Butler counties, many of them discharging raw waste into open trenches and pits via PVC pipe. In one case, a drinking-water line ran through an open-air waste pit.

When it rains, sewage spreads around, leaving behind a mess of bacteria and toilet tissue. The rains also can cause wastewater to back up into homes.

“I think it's very uncommon in the First World,” Alston tells, which first reported the story. “This is not a sight that one normally sees. I’d have to say that I haven’t seen this.”

Speaking to one resident during’s report, Alston says there’s a human right for people to live decently. “The hope is that we’ll bring attention to this, just like we bring attention to people who are being tortured.”

Meanwhile, a study in May by the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston revealed that 34 percent of the people in Lowndes County tested positive for genetic traces of hookworm due to inadequate waste treatment.

Catherine Flowers, founder of the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, requested that study after learning how many open sewers were in her county. “Hookworm is a 19th-century disease that should by now have been addressed, yet we are still struggling with it in the United States in the 21st century,” she told The Guardian in September. “Our billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates fund water treatment around the world, but they don’t fund it here in the U.S. because no one acknowledges that this level of poverty exists in the richest nation in the world.”

That could change in spring 2018 when Alston’s report on U.S. poverty and human rights is slated for release at the United Nations.


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