November 19, 2019

 A More Perfect Toilet

Yes, it’s that day I told you about: World Toilet Day. 

Since I became a member of the Board of Commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago nearly 13 years ago, I’ve learned a lot about sewage, sewers, and sanitation.

CDC_WTD.jpgI’ve learned that epidemics of water-borne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and the plague killed 25 percent of the population in medieval Europe. I’ve learned that London’s cholera epidemic of 1854 led Dr. John Snow to figure out that the disease was caused by drinking water from the Broad Street pump that had been contaminated by wastewater. For a fascinating read, I recommend The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Johnson, which unfurls Snow’s story.

Here is Johnson talking about the map. 

And, I’ve learned that the development of modern sewage treatment systems conveying waste from home toilets to a centralized facility—preventing disease by separating people from the harmful bacteria in their waste—is considered one of the most significant measures contributing to a dramatic increase in life expectancy in the early 20th century.

We have a lot to be thankful for on November 19, designated by the United Nations as World Toilet Day, expressly to draw attention to the more than 2.4 billion people who live without access to basic sanitation in many countries around the world. Millions of people must relieve themselves in farm fields or by the side of a road, where their waste carries harmful bacteria into soil and water, and eventually back to their mouths. Millions of others rely on smelly and leaky pit latrines or resort to defecating into plastic bags, then tossing these onto rooftops. (I learned this from a fascinating book by Rose George called The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters.)

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Still, I don’t profess to be any kind of expert on sanitation. But…I know a guy (as they say in Chicago). His name is Bill Gates and through his foundation, Gates has determinedly spent more than $200 million—and plans to spend that much more—in pursuit of a simple toilet that can be used anywhere and everywhere, that doesn’t require plumbing (and all the attendant water and piping to carry waste away), and that may not even require electricity to operate.

Gates knows that if we can redesign the toilet, whose basic design hasn’t changed in 100 years, millions of lives can be saved and the quality of life for millions more will improve due to the effect of basic sanitation on public health. Several years ago the Gates Foundation launched a challenge called Reinvent the Toilet to generate new ideas and new approaches to safely and effectively manage human waste. Gates knows that human ingenuity, new tools and techniques, combined with resources focused on drastic need can produce marvelous inventions.

Today, on World Toilet Day, let us acknowledge our own good fortune to live where our toilets flush, our waste is treated to high standards, our water is fresh and drinkable, and we have more than enough. Let us reflect on toilets, the world of sanitation and sanitation in the world.