© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Illinois lawmakers still waiting for CDC review of Cahokia Heights sewage exposure

Centreville resident Walter Bird stands in his side yard next to raw sewage on Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in attempt to keep the sewage from backing up into his home.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Walter Bird stands in his side yard next to raw sewage in attempt to keep it from backing up into his home in February 2020 in Cahokia Heights.

Editor's note: This story was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

It’s been over three months since U.S. lawmakers for southwestern Illinois requested a federal public health assessment in Cahokia Heights. But government efforts to understand the possible health effects have not yet begun.

Residents say a health assessment is long overdue because their exposure to sewage started decades ago.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Nikki Budzinski said Monday during a visit to Cahokia Heights they haven’t gotten a commitment from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that it will conduct the assessment. The lawmakers said they continue to follow up to make sure it happens.

“I think they’re intent on doing the right thing, but they’re very slow,” Durbin told the BND.

Durbin, Budzinski and U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth sent a letter requesting the assessment to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry on Dec. 11.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is a federal public health agency that protects communities from harmful health effects related to exposure to natural and man-made hazardous substances, according to its website.

The full process for it to conduct a public health assessment typically takes five years on average, but the lawmakers are pushing for a faster timeline for Cahokia Heights, according to Congresswoman Budzinski’s office.

Since receiving the request for a health assessment, the agency has been meeting with the lawmakers’ staffs to determine “appropriate and effective next steps,” according to the CDC’s office of communication.

“This conversation is ongoing, and ATSDR will continue to assist with finding a resolution,” the office stated in response to BND questions about the status of the lawmakers’ request.

Durbin also met privately with CDC Director Dr. Mandy Cohen in January to discuss public health issues, including the ways Congress can work with the CDC to ensure Cahokia Heights residents “get the answers they deserve,” according to the senator’s office.

Longtime resident Yvette Lyles said last week she can’t understand the delay, especially when an independent study of the bacteria and parasites present in Cahokia Heights found more than 40% of adults out of an initial sample of 42 had the same stomach infection from the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, or H. pylori.

Yvette Lyle on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2023, outside of her home in East St. Louis, Ill. Lyle, like many of her neighbors, has experienced respiratory issues and has spent thousands of dollars repairing flood damages since the 90s. She is one of many plaintiffs in a lawsuit for the city’s negligence in treating an infectious bacteria as a result of sewage exposure.
Joshua Carter
Belleville News-Democrat
Cahokia Heights resident Yvette Lyles has health problems she believes were caused by the sewage and flood water entering her home for decades because of infrastructure and drainage issues in the city.

It is believed to spread through contact with feces or contaminated food or water.

Lyles, 64, has been infected with H. pylori twice.

“It should be done a lot faster,” Lyles said of a government health assessment.

Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Colorado have been conducting their study in Cahokia Heights since 2022. The researchers were interested in studying the community because of its frequent sewage backups.

In a March meeting with the universities’ research team, about a dozen residents said diseases are their top concerns related to the infrastructure issues.

Residents attended the meeting to sign on to help the researchers’ study include their experiences with sewer backups and flooding that causes sewers to overflow onto streets and spill into homes. During the meeting, they brainstormed the concerns that residents will try to illustrate in photographs in their neighborhoods to eventually be published with a scientific journal article about the study — including the health, emotional and economic effects on their lives.

The lawmakers’ call for action came about a month after the BND published Hazardous Homes, a special report that revealed local and state health agencies failed to provide essential health services after residents’ homes repeatedly flooded with sewage.

The East Side Health District and Illinois Department of Public Health haven’t investigated the possible health effects of chronic exposure to sewage and haven’t fully informed citizens of the risks they face, according to BND reporting.

Lexi Cortes is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

Lexi Cortes is an investigative reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.