Bacteria, parasites are making people sick in Cahokia Heights. Its sewers may be the cause
Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.
Cahokia Heights residents are being exposed to bacteria and parasites possibly spreading because of chronic sewage backups and flooding in their community, preliminary findings from an ongoing health study showed.
It has made some people sick, and researchers want to expand their study to get a better understanding of the potential scope.
“Sewage backups are a big risk factor for these infections to spread,” said Washington University professor Theresa Gildner.
Gildner and Tara Cepon-Robins from University of Colorado are conducting the study, with analysis help from a Washington University microbiologist.
They collected stool samples from 42 adults as well as 28 soil samples in Cahokia Heights last summer.
One of their major preliminary findings is that over 40% of the adults sampled tested positive for Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori, infection.
H. pylori is a bacteria that is thought to spread through contact with feces or contaminated food or water. It infects the stomach lining. In severe infections, it can cause ulcers.
Gildner said some recent research also linked long-term H. pylori infection to a possible higher risk of developing gastric cancers.
The percentage from the small sample of people in Cahokia Heights is higher than the estimated national average for H. pylori infection, which is about 30%.
Gildner discussed the preliminary findings with residents at the Cahokia Public Library on Saturday. Former Cahokia Heights resident Carolyn Taggart said the conversation with Gildner led her to think differently about her own health history.
Doctors diagnosed her with H. pylori in the mid-90s when she lived in Cahokia Heights, but she didn’t consider until Saturday that problems with the city’s sanitation system could have caused her illness.
“I didn’t know where it came from,” she said. “They didn’t tell me where it came from. They just gave me medicine.”
Failing infrastructure in Cahokia Heights has caused raw sewage to back up in homes, yards and streets for decades.
Officials have been working to find funding for repairs since media coverage and lawsuits starting in 2020 drew more attention to the issue. Major sewer repairs could start by the end of the year with some of the money they received.
Taggart and her husband Maurice lived in Piat Place in the former city of Centreville, one of two neighborhoods where most residents have had sewage backups and flooding. They moved out in 2003 because of the infrastructure issues. Centreville consolidated into Cahokia Heights two years ago.
“It’s shocking to hear this now after all these years,” Maurice Taggart said.
Carolyn and Maurice Taggart said they still own and maintain their Cahokia Heights home, and a relative lives there now.
They are plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit over the infrastructure that was filed against the city of Cahokia Heights and the government agencies that operated its sewage and levee systems.
Infections usually in poor communities with failing infrastructure
Some people think of bacterial and parasitic infections as a problem in other countries but not in the United States, according to Gildner. She said research on infections within the U.S. dwindled after the 1980s, especially for parasites. It’s one of the reasons they’re studying it now.
“There’s kind of a perception in the U.S. that we’re a very wealthy country, we don’t have these issues like you see in other parts of the world — even though we have in the past and there’s not really evidence it went away,” Gildner said.
Cahokia Heights resident Yvette Lyles said she was hospitalized for 10 days because of an infection about five years ago. Doctors asked her about international travel after they discovered she had H. pylori.
“They asked me, ‘Had I traveled abroad?’ I said, ‘No, I was at home,’” Lyles said.
She said her son and four or five of her neighbors have also had H. pylori. She lives across the street from the Taggarts’ Cahokia Heights home in Piat Place, and she is also a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit.
Despite perceptions, Gildner said bacterial and parasitic infections are usually found in communities with low-income residents who might lack access to resources like nutritious food, health care, a functioning sewage system or clean water.
Another major, early finding from the health study is that the adults sampled in Cahokia Heights had much higher levels of intestinal inflammation than Gildner said she has seen in other parts of the world, including Ecuador where she tested children from an indigenous group.
More severe bacterial or parasitic infections can cause a lot of inflammation, according to Gildner.
Almost a quarter of the adults sampled in Cahokia Heights had high levels of intestinal inflammation and 40% had moderate inflammation.
“That was quite striking,” Gildner said.
Beyond H. pylori infections and intestinal inflammation, researchers found the presence of harmful parasites in the soil they collected last year in Cahokia Heights from schools, parks and places where they thought sewage might have flooded. They didn’t release the specific locations.
Gildner said the most concerning finding was an amoeba called acanthamoeba that can cause necrosis or severe skin and eye infections. It was found in a soil sample collected from a playground.
The most common was the microscopic parasite sarcocystis, which can cause nausea, vomiting, fever or muscle pain. It was found in over 80% of soil samples, as well as about 5% of stool samples from study participants.
Platyhelminthes, or parasitic worms, were also found in two of the soil samples.
Gildner said parasites can generally cause nutritional deficiencies. In children, they can cause growth delays. People with severe infections can also experience more serious symptoms like intestinal blockages or organ failure, but it’s rare, according to Gildner.
At the Cahokia Public Library on Saturday, Maurice Taggart asked Gildner what the community could do about the bacteria and parasites the researchers found.
“How do you get rid of it?” he said. “I mean, what do you do?”
In the short term, Gildner said they want to alert people to any infections they might have so they can get treatment.
Long-term, they’re trying to raise awareness of the issue because it’s going to take structural fixes, according to Gildner.