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Story at-a-glance -

  • As many as 2.5 billion people live where sanitation isn’t available; around 2 million tons of waste enters waterways daily, causing cholera and other diseases
  • Clean drinking water, as well as water for cleaning, laundry and sanitation is lacking in many developing countries and even in the U.S., but money to fix it is a global problem
  • Drought, clogged sewers, water main breaks, pharmaceutical and farm run-off, plastic water bottles, and the risk of BPA poisoning are all results of water shortage or contamination
  • The “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge” has created a toilet with its own built in treatment plant; the Omni Processor, another innovation, converts feces into safe drinking water
 

Smarter Toilets, Improving Hygiene and Sanitation Worldwide

February 13, 2016 | 40,210 views

By Dr. Mercola

For people in most Western societies, having access to clean water for multiple uses at any moment is a given — it's as close as the nearest faucet.

But while thousands of people spend hours every day looking for water, the lack of water for hygienic purposes impacts millions, a problem that is potentially deadly on a staggering scale.

This need is made even more sobering by statistics revealing that about 2 million tons of human waste are dumped in the nearest ditches, ponds, rivers and oceans every single day. One reason is that 2.5 billion people live in areas where sanitation is simply unavailable.1 It's a global crisis.

This compromises whatever clean drinking water there might available. This type of feces-laced water pollution results in cholera epidemics and contributes to rampant diarrhea, as well as typhoid outbreaks.

The infant mortality rate even in the U.S., sorry to say, is appalling. Today there are more than 6 infant deaths per 1,000 births, which is higher than 27 of the world's wealthiest countries, and it's directly related to poor hygiene due to lack of clean water and sanitation, according to WaterAid's Healthy Start.2

The World's Most Pressing Need: Clean, Running Water

Managing the water and sanitation requirements in some urban areas is a challenge that's been out of control for decades. Developing and sustaining efficient water management is even more difficult because populations continue to grow. According to a UN report:3

  • Half of humanity now lives in cities. Within two decades, nearly 60 percent of the world's population — 5 billion people — will be urban dwellers.
  • Urban growth is fastest in the developing world, where cities gain an average of 5 million residents each month.
  • The population explosion in urban areas has created unprecedented challenges, of which limited access to clean water and sanitation may be the most urgent.
  • Cities require a very large input of freshwater and in turn have a huge impact on freshwater systems.
  • Cities are unsustainable without reliable access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation.

It's a crisis on an epic scale, but what can be done?

Water Scarcity and Pollution Not Just in the Third World

Even in parts of the U.S., water is a scarce and precious commodity. In fact, the Government Accountability Office predicts that in just the next decade, 40 U.S. states will experience some type of water shortage. There are several reasons why.

California's water shortage stems from the state's worst drought on record. ABC News reported:

"State water managers say California's snowpack needs to be at 150 percent of normal on April 1 to signal an end to drought …

The lack of surface water supplies for irrigation during the drought has forced many farmers to use groundwater to keep their crops alive, drawing down wells and leading many to run dry."4

Colorado, Arizona and surrounding states are sharing the concern. The Water Project5 website noted:

"It seems impossible that a powerful river like the Colorado River is beginning to run dry in places. It seems farfetched that a huge body of water like Lake Mead in Arizona might become obsolete, but these and other dramatic changes are facing the United States."

And That's Not the Only Reason

A recent instance is the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where citizens have been warned not to drink their tap water because lead from old pipes is releasing excessive amounts of lead into it.

This ongoing public health emergency in the short term required the National Guard6 to distribute bottled water and water filters by the thousands. Correcting the catastrophe will be a long-term and costly enterprise.

The problem in Flint helps explain why a carefully planned infrastructure is critical to maintaining water quality and also preventing future shortages.

It also explains why one of the biggest problems for the 2.5 billion city dwellers in developing nations who don't have clean water is that there's no system in place for such technology.

In the U.S., multiple problems have been related either to a lack of water or its contamination:

  • Many lakes are at risk due to farm fertilizer runoff. High levels of nitrates from factory farms have been detected in the water, a potential cause of reproductive problems, cancer, autoimmune diseases, and more.
  • About half of the dentists in the U.S. still use mercury (amalgam) fillings, and the mercury ends up in wastewater and eventually, water treatment facilities.
  • According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, 56 million Americans in 25 states are drinking water contaminated with arsenic at unsafe levels.
  • In one study, 80 percent of the water samples from 139 streams in 30 states contained measurable levels of hormones, painkillers, antidepressants, etc.
  • Pharmaceutical drug-contaminated drinking water results from urine and feces being flushed or the drugs themselves being flushed down drains or toilets.

  • People reusing plastic water bottles risk contamination due to bisphenol-A (BPA) in the plastic, which may also contain phthalates that may pose serious health hazards to pregnant women and children.
  • There's also wear from repeated use, which can lead to bacterial growth in surface cracks.

  • Antiquated pipes in peoples' homes, as well as city waterworks, have led to dangerously high levels of lead, copper, E. coli and trihalomethanes (THMs), which experts say are associated with bladder cancer and gestational and developmental problems.
  • Testing of municipal water systems from 43 states revealed chemicals in the water considered "probable human carcinogens" in every single system.

Sewer Overflows and Sewer Breaks — A Sticky, Stinky Problem

Then there are sanitary sewer overflows caused by power failures, defective sewer systems and other factors.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that as many as 75,000 sewer break-downs take place somewhere in the U.S. every year, and that's not even counting sewage back-ups into buildings.7

For example, in Great Britain, an 11-ton "Fatburg" consisting of so-called "flushable" wet wipes, household sewage and congealed fat broke a sewer pipe in London, England, in 2015, requiring months of repair and causing damage amounting to more than $600,000.8

Similar problems involve innumerable, aging infrastructures throughout the U.S.

In Washington, for instance, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission reported after a huge water main break that only a "miracle" valve fix prevented upwards of 300,000 residents from needing to stock up on water. Officials warned that taps would likely run dry for a minimum of five days.

"Bottled water was stripped from the shelves; people filled trash cans and bathtubs with water to flush toilets; firefighters and medical personnel activated contingency plans; and the regional planning organization began coordinating support from other counties and other states.

National Harbor, the sprawling shopping and entertainment complex on the Potomac River, was shut down. Hotel guests checked out prematurely, and restaurants closed abruptly."9

Further, The Atlantic reported:

"Harmful algal blooms like the one that cost Toledo, Ohio its drinking water last summer, fish kills like the one reported off Long Island, and the much-discussed dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico are all fed by phosphorus, nitrogen, and other contaminants found in the untreated sewage that, according to EPA estimates, flows out of America's treatment plants during the 23,000 to 75,000 sanitary-sewer overflows that happen per year."10

The same article notes: "Sometimes the overflow is so significant that the stormwater-and-sewage mixture backs up into the streets where people walk." It's not always broken pipes that can bring sewage to where we live. Freak Superstorm Sandy in 2012 is another instance where tens of millions of gallons of sewage were spilled into waterways all along the East Coast.

What We've Got and What We Need

In an Environmental Health Perspectives journal article titled, "Combined Sewer Systems: Down, Dirty and Out of Date," here's how past solutions have become part of today's problems:

"When combined sewer systems were introduced in 1855, they were hailed as a vast improvement over urban cesspool ditches that ran along city streets and spilled over when it rained. These networks of underground pipes were designed to dry out streets by collecting rainwater runoff, domestic sewage from newly invented flush toilets, and industrial waste-water all in the same pipe.

Waste and storm water was then discharged directly into waterways; in the early twentieth century, sewage treatment plants were added to clean the wastewater before it hit streams. Combined sewer systems were — and still are — a great idea, with one catch: when too much stormwater is added to the flow of raw sewage, the result is frequently an overflow."11

Infrastructures are expensive. In most cities, the Powers That Be generally discourage discussion about changing up old pipes that have been in place since the first half of the 20th century, although many were constructed before toilets were even invented.

As anyone who's ever sat on a sewer district, public works or planning commission knows, regardless of its merit, it practically requires an act of Congress to get the go-ahead to tackle something as costly and involved as new infrastructure.

The 'Gold Standard' for Clean Water Systems

As it's always been, innovation in developing countries is driven by desperate need, as in the 3.4 million people who die every year from cholera, dysentery and typhoid, diseases directly related to contaminated water. But although 98 percent of the waste is untreated in cities such as Dhaka and Bangladesh, other emergencies get the attention — and the money.

Brian Arbogast, director of the Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has spent the last few years working with a team to upgrade the current, antiquated way sanitation is approached, including a "reinvented toilet" that uses energy from human waste to treat the water. The resulting water is so clean you can use it to wash with.12

Sixteen projects have been granted funding since 2011 as part of this "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge (RTTC)." Two such programs were launched in 2013 — one in India and one in China:

" … [D]esigned to harness strong in-country research and development capabilities to solve this global challenge … We are funding research to develop truly aspirational 'next-generation' toilets that do not require a sewer or water connection or electricity, cost less than 5 cents per user per day, and are designed to meet people's needs. Most of the projects use chemical engineering processes for energy and resource recovery from human waste." 13

Unfortunately, Gates has historically channeled his billions into vaccines instead of primarily funding clean drinking water and sanitation projects. But believe it or not, technology tackled by the Gates Foundation in partnership with Janicki Bioenergy has also been developed that successfully converts feces into safe drinking water. Called the Omni Processor, it's already being utilized in Dakar and Senegal.

One reason developed countries don't pursue updated sanitation is that they already have something in place. As the saying goes, you don't fix something that isn't busted. It isn't a "felt need" until a crisis occurs, like it has in London, England, and in Washington and Flint and Fling in the U.S..

Composting Toilets and Urine as Fertilizer

Even in the U.S., innovations are being made to minimize the footprint from human waste and even turn it into usable products. Although they're not yet in widespread use, composting toilets are widely available. Though they're currently marketed more toward use in cabins, camps or rural areas, some describe composting toilets as the toilet of the future. They work by evaporating liquids and decomposing the small amount of remaining waste.

Composting toilets produce no pollution and, even better, leave you with a safe fertilizing soil. Similarly, human urine is also being used as a natural fertilizer, as it's naturally rich in nitrogen (N), potassium (K), and phosphorus (P) — the three components of most synthetic fertilizers (NPK).

What You Can Do

In Mexico, water drilling and extraction began at unsustainable rates as early as the 1940s, leaving the groundwater contaminated with fluoride and arsenic. A non-profit organization called CATIS-Mexico is helping communities improve the lives of people living in these communities, in part by providing tools to make reusable water filters.

The filters used by CATIS-Mexico are made in a simple hand mold using locally available clay and burn-out material (such as waste sawdust). One CATIS filter produces about 24 liters of water a day, requires little maintenance, and lasts two to three years. You can help directly by supporting CATIS-Mexico. In addition, WaterAid works in 37 countries throughout the world, "transforming millions of lives every year with safe water, sanitation and hygiene projects." You can help by donating now.

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