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Congressman says conservative believes HIV spread through sewer pipes

After a conservative nonprofit won a $1.6 million state grant to deliver women’s health services, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro made a “sewer” claim about the group’s director.

The San Antonio Democrat said in a tweet this month: “The group’s director believes HIV can be spread through the sewer system. Is it really most qualified for the grant?”

Human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS, is mainly spread through sexual contact or from sharing needles, syringes, rinse water or other equipment with someone who has the virus, “HIV does not survive long outside the human body (such as on surfaces) and it cannot reproduce outside a human host,” a federal AIDS website says, nor is it spread by air or water.

By email, Castro’s House spokeswoman, Erin Hatch, provided web links indicating Castro relied on news accounts quoting Carol Everett, chief executive of the Round Rock-based Heidi Group, the grant awardee which once ran no-charge crisis pregnancy centers in Dallas advising women with unplanned pregnancies about giving birth.

Everett, an Aug. 11 American-Statesman news story noted, “recently came under scrutiny for suggesting during a fetal tissue disposal hearing that sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, could be transmitted through the sewer system.”

Everett also told the paper her highlighted comments had been misunderstood. Chang shared with us her notes from her interview of Everett, who said: “I very much regret what I said. I shouldn’t have even tried … because they misunderstood it. I didn’t talk about transmitting STDs that way. I was trying to talk about the fact that babies are ground up and put into these garbage disposals which goes into our sewers. I didn’t make that point very clearly.”

Existing regulations allow fetal remains, as with other medical tissue, to be ground and discharged into a sewer system, incinerated or disinfected followed by disposal in a landfill, or “an approved alternate treatment process, provided that the process renders the item as unrecognizable, followed by deposition in a sanitary landfill.”

Everett ranks among advocates of a proposed state rule requiring fetal remains to be buried or cremated rather than disposed in other ways. The rule was proposed in June by the executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission on behalf of the Department of State Health Services; it wasn’t finalized as of last week.

For our part, we confirmed from that in Everett’s recorded comments before a state agency she twice made mention of HIV and sewers.

Chang’s recording of Everett’s appearance at the Aug. 4 hearing on the proposed rule show Everett expressed criticism of current disposal methods:

“What does this really do to the public? There are other people to consider.

“What if one of those sewer treatment programs breaks down one day? You know, the abortion industry doesn’t have time; they only see a woman one time; they do not do an AIDS test, they don’t do, they don’t know if she’s HIV-positive. They don’t know if she has a sexually transmitted disease. And what if one day, just one day, something horrible escaped into the sewer system?” (Laughter.)

“It may sound funny but it’s something we could think about because I can tell you today, the public is thinking about it.

“So I appreciate very much addressing this. I encourage you to uphold it. Let’s take care of those who cannot take care of themselves — and I am talking about the women,” Everett said.

Earlier, Everett said in a July interview with Austin’s Fox 7 TV station that existing protocols for disposing fetal remains pose “several health concerns. What if the woman had HIV? What if she had a sexually transmitted disease? What if those germs went through and got into our water supply?” Everett said.

We followed up with Everett, who said by phone that she hadn’t explicitly said HIV is spread through sewer pipes — and doesn’t believe as much. “People with HIV and AIDS go to the bathroom every day,” Everett said.

Everett called her comment about HIV/STD “germs” getting into the water supply “really far out. I shouldn’t have said that.”

Our ruling

Castro said Everett “believes HIV can be spread through the sewer system.”

Everett didn’t explicitly say as much. However, on two occasions, she raised the “what-if” specter of a woman somehow passing along the virus or an STD through fetal material flushed down a drain.

We rate this claim Mostly True.

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