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Complaint: Racial Bias Behind Health Woes in Alabama County

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — An advocacy group claims Alabama health officials are discriminating against residents of a poor, mostly black county by failing to address sanitation problems that led to an outbreak of a parasite most common in underdeveloped countries.

San Francisco-based Earthjustice said Friday it filed a complaint with the federal government on behalf of residents of Lowndes County, which is one of Alabama’s poorest areas yet lies just a few miles west of the state capital of Montgomery.

The nonprofit environmental law firm contends state and county health officials have failed to address sewage conditions that led to a hookworm problem in the county, which once was a hotbed of civil rights activity and is part of an impoverished region called the Black Belt.

The area’s dense soil, composed of clay and chalk, reduces the effectiveness of ordinary sewage systems, and some homes drain human waste directly into open pits or ditches that overflow during storms. The complaint, filed with Health and Human Services, contends state and county health officials have failed to address the problem.

“We hope that the Department of Health and Human Services will exercise its power under federal civil rights law to resolve the discriminatory conduct that has long deprived African-American residents in the Black Belt from functional wastewater systems and adequate protections of their health,” Earthjustice attorney Anna Sewell said in a statement.

The Alabama Department of Public Health had no immediate comment on the complaint, but it previously has denied claims of a hookworm outbreak in the county, which has a population of roughly 10,000 people. Nearly three-quarters of them are black, and Census statistics show more than 30 percent live in poverty.

The anti-poverty nonprofit Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, which initiated the complaint, said the sewage problem in Lowndes is another form of racial oppression toward black residents.

A study by Baylor University last year concluded that about one-third of the county’s residents tested positive for low levels of hookworm, an intestinal parasite that typically spreads through human feces. It is most commonly found in non-industrial nations in the Southern Hemisphere.

State health officials released an announcement in April disputing that the county was suffering an outbreak of hookworm. The study released last year was based on technology not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the agency said, and it wasn’t large enough to be statistically meaningful.

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