November 19, 2018

When Nature Calls:
World Toilet Day 2018

Nature_Is_Calling_A2_POSTER_WTD2018.jpgSometimes I try to imagine what living in Chicago must have been like in the 1880s, a crowded city teeming with half a million people — and no sewage treatment.

Sewer pipes had been laid two decades earlier by raising buildings and streets, but the pipes conveyed sewage directly into the river. Conjure, if you will, the stench of waste clogging a sluggish, slow-moving prairie stream busy with commercial vessels and barges, receptacle for tannery chemicals and stockyard carcasses. Pumps pulled water from Lake Michigan into the Illinois & Michigan Canal, diverting some of the waste away from the lake. But the atmosphere was probably stinky and fetid.

The grand plan to dig the 28-mile Sanitary & Ship Canal to convey waste away from the lake was conceived in the late 1880s. Work began in 1892 and finished in 1900. Water from the lake then flushed sewage downstream to the Canal’s confluence with the Des Plaines River near Lockport. Chicago had reversed the flow of its river. But more modern sewage treatment didn’t arrive for another decade or more, when the city’s waste treatment strategy led to the construction of large sewage plants. The Calumet plant at 130th and Torrence, was completed in 1922, the North Side works in Skokie (1928), the West Side works now known as the Stickney plant (1931), and the Southwest works, also at Stickney (1939). By 1970, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, Chicago had the largest sewage treatment facilities in the world.

Yet on this World Toilet Day, it’s worth noting these awful facts:

  • 4.5 billion people live without a safe toilet.
  • 892 million defecate outside every day.
  • 1.8 billion use a drinking water source that could be contaminated with feces, and approximately 840,000 people die every year from diseases directly caused by unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene practices.
  • 50 percent of child malnutrition is associated with unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, and poor hygiene.
  • One of every five schools worldwide have no toilets at all. Girls who reach the age of menstruation often drop out of school.
  • 900 million schoolchildren have nowhere to wash their hands.
  • 80 percent of the world’s wastewater flows back untreated into the environment.

Isn’t having access to clean sanitation facilities and adequate time to use them akin to a basic human right? Yet, when nature calls for transit workers, for example, too many find themselves with nowhere to go!

Earlier this month a story in the Chicago Sun-Times reported that several Chicago Transit Authority bus drivers had been caught on video urinating or defecating on buses or outside near them. Personally, I recall seeing quite a few plastic bottles filled with liquid that looked suspiciously like urine lying on the tracks at the terminus of the CTA Yellow Line in Skokie not terribly long ago. The International Transit Worker Federation is launching a campaign called Our Right to Flush. Moreover, transit workers are by no means the only people whose jobs place them in compromised positions, sanitation-wise.

Where is the nearest safe, clean public toilet you can think of in Chicago — or the city where you live? Yet we pride ourselves for dwelling in a modern city and country. Should we?

I encourage you to take a moment on this World Toilet Day to thank our lucky seats — and endeavor to help the world meet the United Nations’ sustainable development goal of water and sanitation for all by 2030. Right now, we are not on track.