Start your own Poovolution!

Doodie, dung, floater, loaf, Lincoln log, tootsie roll… . Although you may not want to admit it, just like the book says we all do it and, “Everyone Poops.”

During the Nerd Nite talk, “Why you should start your own Poovolution,” we took a much closer look the global importance of safe sanitation.  From bowel movements onwards Lauren Burgunder walked us through the history of sanitation, toilets and their socioeconomic implications

The talk started off with some light banter about the importance poop plays in understanding our overall health and an how by producing waste we are eliminating toxins from our bodies. “Poop is fun and it’s funny,” Burgunder said, “but it can also be a killer and dangerous given that there are so many viruses and cysts hidden in feces.”

But what is Poop exactly?

“Poop is 75% water. The other 25 percent is 1/3 indigestible fiber, 1/3 dead bacteria and 1/3 fats, inorganic salts, dead cells, live bacteria and then what that live bacteria encompasses,” she said. “Typically not in the United States, this gram of feces would probably be of somebody who lives in Bangladesh or India or Guatemala, but that gram is made up of 10 million viruses, a million bacteria, a thousand parasitic cysts and 100 worms.”

Good sanitation is really the key to preventing sickness, but sometimes we need to learn things the hard way. Thanks to a series of cholera outbreaks in London and then “The Great Stink” in 1858, developing a sewer system for the metropolis became paramount, and the London Sewer system was born. It’s gradual evolution from poop buckets and cesspools in the early 1500’s to the combined sewage system, involved the combined dedication of a fast acting Parliament, and inspired the efforts of John Snow and Joseph Bazalgette.

Although it solved the city’s sewage problems, because rain and sewage flowed together through the same system the combined sewer system wasn’t a perfect solution. “if there’s ever more than an inch of rain in two hours then the system overflows, and where do you think that goes?” said Burgunder, “If there’s a big body of water near the city it will back up and overflow into that water.” So, in a city like Boston which modeled its self after London, including the sewer system, if the sewer overflowed the sewage went directly into the closest large body of water i.e. Boston Harbor.

But what good is a sewer system if you don’t have a toilet to use with it. “Toilets, they are a great invention. What makes so great is their use of the S-Trap,” she said, “In 1775, Alexander Cummings invented and patented the S-Trap. Basically what happens is that when you flush a toilet there is enough water pressure and water coming in that it flushes the gross stuff out. There is a little clean water at the end that gets trapped in that lower U shape and that acts as a seal.”

She went into a lot of detail about different “toilets” which are considered “safe sanitation” by the World Health Organization. While they vary in design they all include critical components like lining to prevent seepage and the S-Trap. There was the pit like Pour Flush Toilet, The Ventilated Pit Latrine which diverted air flow out the top, and the Urine Diverting Toilet which separates urine from stool. “It’s a really good alternative for sanitation where there is no water source or no ability to pipe water in or no money to do it.” she said, “It takes a little bit of learning to use. Poop and pee go into two separate receptacles. Even if you have diarrhea the idea is that you would have enough solid poop in there to balance it out.”

There were also a number of “unimproved and unsafe” options discussed like, “no toilet,” and “squatting in a bush,” which are unsafe for what should be very obvious reasons. (The saying “don’t shit where you eat/sleep/work/play” is right on. Eating/sleeping/working or playing near or around an area that has been used for elimination, like in a river that could also be used for drinking water or irrigation is a surefire way to continue the cycle of contamination which for obvious reasons, is not good.)

There is a greater global implication to good sanitation. Along with improved health come economic and safety benefits, as well as a reduction in violence against women and more consistent attendance at school particularly for girls. “for every dollar spent on improved sanitation there is an estimated $9.00 return on economic productivity” said Burgunder ” That covers the ability for kids to consistently go to school when they’re sick, or for girls when they’re menstruating.”

One of the highlights of her talk was a entertaining short video by to raise awareness for World Toilet Day (November 19th) and which featured Matt Damon.

I’m not sure I did it justice but Burgunder’s talk was a pretty amazing not just in subject matter but in the way she combined facts and light humor. As one of her final points, she pointed out that despite how dire the situation might seem, this epidemic hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed and large wealthy organizations like; The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, World Toilet Organization, Poop Creative and Soil are working hard to educate people in developing nations and our privileged sphere about the greater good safe sanitation for everyone can provide for us all.

While it’s hard to imagine how much more full of shit my life could be, it’s scary to think how big a difference it can make to simply have access to good sanitation.   I, for one, feel edified and perhaps curious enough to want to learn a little bit more about how even my own little “poovolution” could help change the world.


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