Today’s topic will make some of you squeamish, because we’re going to talk about poop. I’ve lived in homes connected to a sewer system and homes on a septic system; I’ve been camping in places with flush toilets, with pit latrines, and a few times out in the wild where you dig your own hole and fill it back in when you’re done.

As the mother of three boys, I have changed thousands of diapers (and heard hundreds of fart jokes – which some days almost makes me despair of raising my children to function in polite society). Dealing with human waste is a human issue and has been for as long as humans have been on this planet. Many of us are oblivious to the blessing that proper sanitation is and the challenges of dealing with this problem without the advantage of indoor plumbing.

“Imagine the smell…”

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poophappenedPoop Happened!: A History of the World from the Bottom Up

By Sarah Albee

Ms. Albee takes a light-hearted approach to a historical review of how civilizations have dealt with human waste. Hilarious illustrations, including some historical reproductions, and short, but informative one-page articles on various topics make this book easy and enjoyable to read, appealing to both children and adults.

The articles and sidebars draw attention to intriguing details. For example, Ms. Albee explains that the etiquette of having the gentleman walk on the side closest to the street when out with a lady developed during the Renaissance, in part because the upper stories on buildings jutted out over the lower floor. When people in the upper stories would dump their chamber pots out their windows, the excrement would be more likely to fall on the gentleman rather than the lady. This also illustrates why parasols for ladies were so popular at the time. Yuck!

Poop Happened! contains a series of sidebars called “Icky Occupations” and, yes, they are so, so icky. You can learn about paleoscatologists (scientists who study coprolite, or ancient poop), fullers (who cleaned cloth with concentrated human urine), and gongfermors (who emptied privy pits for wealthier households and carted the waste away). Even if you were a young child you could earn some money in the field by being a pure collector, someone who gathered dog poop to sell to tanners for softening leather. And King Henry VIII reportedly had a “Groom of the Stool” whose job it was to wipe his royal behind. Job security is nothing to scoff at, I suppose…

Another sidebar series introduces some “Hygiene Heroes” including Benjamin Franklin (who established America’s first street-cleaning system), Ambrose Pere (a sixteenth-century French doctor who championed the radical belief washing hands before examining patients would reduce infection),and Florence Nightingale (who demanded cleanliness as standard hospital practice during the Crimean War and saved countless lives).

A phrase that appears often in Poop Happened! is “Imagine the smell!” Wagons full of poop collected by gongfermors would be dumped in huge piles outside towns. Chamber pots were usually simply dumped right in the streets. Larger cities that often had no sewer system would funnel human waste straight into the nearest river, killing all marine life and stinking to high heaven, particularly in hot and dry spells. Ms. Albee tells of the summer of 1858 in London when “a long dry spell [was] followed by a terrible heat wave” and “the Thames began to smell really, really bad.” This finally prompted Parliament to act and they hired an engineer named Joseph Bazalgette to design and build a sewage system that moved the sewage further downstream before being dumped in the river (much to the chagrin of towns in that direction).

All joking aside, though, this is a sobering thought: “Throughout history, the improper disposal of human waste has led to very bad consequences, namely, wars, disease, grisly deaths, insect trouble, plagues, high infant mortality, heavy alcohol consumption, shortened stature, shortened life spans, cave-ins, explosions, asphyxiation, peasant revolts, and collapsed empires. To say nothing of extremely smelly city streets.” And unfortunately, these “very bad consequences” are not just limited to the dusty annals of history.

“Rich toileted people; poor toiletless masses. Life, luxury, and health for the privileged. Disease and death and business as usual for the poor.”

thebignecessityThe Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters

By Rose George

Every once in a while you read a book that makes you think about something you take for granted in a completely different light. It generally becomes clear to me that I’m reading one of those books when I’m stopping frequently to say, “Oh, wow! Honey, listen to this!” and then assailing my husband with amazing facts about my current topic of interest. I started quoting Ms. George’s book at my husband on page 2 and, according to my long-suffering husband, didn’t stop until the last page.

For example, 2.6 billion people in this world don’t have sanitation – no toilet, no latrine, no bucket, even. Just a field or a train track or a forest. And the number of children who have died from diarrhea in the last decade (90% of which is caused by fecally contaminated food or water) exceeds the total number of people killed by armed conflict since WWII. That’s unconscionable.

Ms. George looks at sanitation – the current, polite euphemism for the process of defecation and urination and what to do with the resulting waste – in developed and developing countries, from the U.S. to Bangladesh. In doing so, she takes a critical topic most people like to avoid or ignore and shines a bright spotlight right on it. Put plainly: “The goal of sanitation is to prevent excrement traveling from anus to mouth.” Unpleasant to think about, for sure, but ask someone who has had cholera just how unpleasant that is.

So Ms. George climbs into a sewer in London, visits villages run on biogas in China, tries out high-tech toilets with heated seats that take your blood pressure in Japan, and meets with people working toward an Open Defecation-Free India. She shows how having a safe, clean place to perform this most common of human needs improves health, increases education, leads to more free time and confidence (especially for women), and strengthens the economy in whatever area it is implemented and maintained. Her arguments are convincing, powerful, and sympathetic, illustrated with stories and examples that drive home the point.

For example, let’s just look at a few more convincing numbers. “People with decent sanitation have fewer diseases and take fewer days off work; they don’t have to pay for funerals of their children dead from cholera or dysentery. They save on medicines, and the state saves because it’s not providing expensive hospital care.


  Every dollar invested in sanitation brings an average of $7 return in health costs averted and productivity gained…Globally, if universal sanitation were achieved by 2015, it would cost $95 billion, but it would save $660 billion.” Not to mention thousands, if not millions, of lives.

When The Big Necessity was published in 2008, Ms. George stated that “We need a champion. A Bono or a Geldof. A Nelson Mandela or an Angelina Jolie. A film star or a politician who has the courage to talk about toilets, when most people only want to talk about faucets.” I believe one is emerging. In 2009, Matt Damon merged his charity H2O Africa with WaterPartners to form Water.org. Yes, it still has only “water” in the title, but one of the group’s major goals is global access to sanitation, recently highlighted by Mr. Damon’s humorous press conference announcing his “toilet strike.” You can watch it here

(On a final note, I will admit that I found it highly amusing that the English borrowed their “bathroom” words from the French, while the French used English terms.)


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On My Bedside Table…

Just finished: Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations by Clay Shirky

Now reading: 30 Ways in 30 Days to Save Your Family by Rebecca Hagelin

On deck: Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder

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