Sickness was thought to travel in stench in the mid-nineteenth century.
In the booming, Industrial Revolution-fueled cities of Britain, cesspools overflowed with the contents of chamber pots. Cholera, typhoid and flu rendered the life expectancy for a working-class man just 20 years in some towns.
Louis Pasteur hadn’t yet shown that germs cause disease. So no one knew that pathogens were passing through people and into the cesspools, and that the cesspools were leaking into drinking water wells. But they knew the outbreak-ridden, low-lying areas reeked.
“Before I got to the district, I was assailed by a most disagreeable smell; and it was clear to the sense that the air was full of most injurious malaria,” wrote architect Edwin Chadwick in an 1842 report.
Dying breadwinners were taxing the government aid system and Chadwick convinced authorities that better drainage might save lives. Enclose the sewers, he said. Rinse them regularly and make sure they all empty into the river, rather than into an unfortunate pile on a side street.
It helped. Yes, the new pipes held in the “bad air” thought to be causing illness. They also shielded the population from the real culprit – bacteria and viruses that traveled in excrement. Child mortality dropped. Fewer adults died, too.
The rivers were a different story. It would be more than 100 years before water quality policies would begin to clean them up.
But the “sanitary revolution” Chadwick helped mobilize is considered one of the most important technological developments of the past two centuries. When the prestigious British Medical Journal in 2007 asked readers to pick the biggest milestone during that time period, they named sanitation over breakthroughs like antibiotics, anesthesia and X-rays.
The flush toilet and wastewater treatment have lengthened lives by 20 years, writes Rose George in “The Big Necessity: the Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters.” It’s no wonder that in a world where more than 2 billion people don’t have access to sanitation, many view this Western approach as ideal.
But a growing number of researchers point out that it’s not perfect. The “flush and forget” system, which has barely changed in the past century, demands tremendous amounts of water, energy and money. Despite that, it doesn’t return water to the ecosystem in the same condition it started. The “effluent” that treatment plants discharge is still studded with pollutants like chemicals from our shampoos and shaving cream, pharmaceuticals and their byproducts, and extra nutrients from the food we eat.
“I think we can do better,” said Krista Wigginton, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Michigan. She is leading a Water Environment Research Foundation project that takes a bold approach that could help curtail a host of the unintended consequences of how we handle human waste.
In the first large-scale pilot project of its kind in the nation, the researchers are testing whether they can safely make fertilizer for food crops out of disinfected human urine.
We've been trained to feel shame around what comes out of our body. While we need to have a healthy sense of fear about these pathogens... we need to think about waste and talk about it.
The project hinges on keeping waste streams separate, as our bodies do. Pee is mostly free of disease-causing germs. Those fester in feces. Liquid waste also carries the pharmaceutical byproducts and a majority of the nutrients – the nitrogen and phosphorus that loom as “one of the costliest and most challenging environmental problems we face,” according to an Environmental Protection Agency memo. Nutrients feed algae. Rampant algae blooms can lead to both “dead zones” that suffocate fish and toxins that could taint drinking water.
Across the country, most nutrient pollution tends to come from agriculture, or more precisely, rain washing over farms and into streams. But the dominant source varies by watershed and wastewater is a troublesome contributor in a lot of places.
In addition to reducing nutrients in water, recycling urine could streamline waste treatment. It could head off the emerging issue of pharmaceutical contamination, curb water use and even lessen the need to manufacture synthetic fertilizer.
“Currently, our agriculture and our wastewater treatment are open systems,” says Kim Nace, director of the Rich Earth Institute in Brattleboro, Vt., a study participant. “It’s not a closed circle. But it could be. It could all go around and around in a complete cycle.”