All Eyes on the South: A Place of Extreme Weather, Poverty... and Hookworms? / by Yessenia Funes

  Hana Loftus  / Flickr

 Hana Loftus / Flickr

(OK, so I realize that the South is more than what this headline alludes to. It is also a place rich in culture, food, music, beautiful people and all of the above. However, I do want to zoom in on the region's troubles.)

The South's warm climate has contributed both to the region's economic success (i.e., cotton farming, tourism), but that climate is making the South a dangerous place to be—especially as it grows warmer. We're seeing that right now (literally) as the Atlantic basin creates hurricane after hurricane. Harvey, Irma and Jose.

Yes, it is hurricane season, but scientists can't help but ask: Will hurricanes of this size and magnitude become the norm? The South isn't equipped to deal with these catastrophes. Why? Let's break it down.

  • Poor Black populations are concentrated in the South.
  • So are Latinos in poverty, particularly in Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.
  • Its warming temperatures will increase the region's death rates, as well as GDP loss.
  • Coastal lands are eroding, so the impact from storms is even worse—and these storms erode the land further. So will sea level rise.
  • Two of the most populous metro areas lie in the South: Miami and Atlanta. Four of the 10 fastest growing metros are here too. 
  • And, as a recent study has shown, the region is dealing with hookworms, which has long been thought eradicated in the U.S.

The Guardian published a report that says 34 percent of people in the predominantly Black Lowndes County in Alabama tested positive for hookworms. The Guardian writes:

The parasite, better known as hookworm, enters the body through the skin, usually through the soles of bare feet, and travels around the body until it attaches itself to the small intestine where it proceeds to suck the blood of its host. Over months or years it causes iron deficiency and anemia, weight loss, tiredness and impaired mental function, especially in children, helping to trap them into the poverty in which the disease flourishes.

Fucking terrifying. I had parasites once. But in El Salvador, a developing country sitting smack dab in Central America. This parasite operates differently though. It doesn't come from dirty water; it comes from the ground—as a result of poor sanitation. When hurricanes inundate entire cities (as we're seeing with Houston), sanitation is non-existent. Sewage fills the streets, and the environment easily becomes toxic. 

The story goes on:

The average income is just $18,046 (£13,850) a year, and almost a third of the population live below the official US poverty line. The most elementary waste disposal infrastructure is often non-existent.
Some 73% of residents included in the Baylor survey reported that they had been exposed to raw sewage washing back into their homes as a result of faulty septic tanks or waste pipes becoming overwhelmed in torrential rains.

The Guardian describes a scene clearly, illustrating what poor sanitation looks like:

An eight-year-old child was sitting on the stoop of one of the trailers. Below him a white pipe ran from his house, across the yard just a few feet away from a basketball hoop, and into a copse of pine and sweet gum trees.
The pipe was cracked in several places and stopped just inside the copse, barely 30ft from the house, dripping ooze into a viscous pool the color of oil. Directly above the sewage pool, a separate narrow-gauge pipe ran up to the house, which turned out to be the main channel carrying drinking water to the residents.
The open sewer was festooned with mosquitoes, and a long cordon of ants could be seen trailing along the waste pipe from the house. At the end of the pool nearest the house the treacly fluid was glistening in the dappled sunlight – a closer look revealed that it was actually moving, its human effluence heaving and churning with thousands of worms.

Now, imagine what this looks like post-flooding? After torrential rains? All that flows and spreads. The story recognizes and addresses that, too:

The same thing that made the land so good for cotton – its water-retaining properties – also makes it a hazard to the thousands of African Americans who still live on it today. When the rains come, the soil becomes saturated, overwhelming inadequate waste systems and providing a perfect breeding ground for hookworm.

Researchers estimate that 12 million Americans could be impacted by these types of tropical diseases. This study looked at a small sample, just 67 people, but the numbers tell a chilling story. The EPA knows that Alabama, for example, will see more flooding. Rain no longer falls calmly. It pours.

It's time that lawmakers solve the root problems: poverty, poor infrastructure and a failed energy system. Homeowners shouldn't have to choose between safe waste treatment and their electricity bills. They should also have the option to choose an affordable energy source that isn't worsening the situation by exacerbating climate change. 

It's 2017 in the richest country in the world. Should hookworms be another concern?