Health & Medicine

The problem with sewage

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

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London sewer (Image: Mr. J Doe/Flickr)

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The statistics are gross in almost every sense of the word. Ninety percent of the developing world's sewage is dumped untreated into oceans, rivers and lakes. Forty percent of the world’s population, or 2.6 billion people, have no access to at toilet. One gram of feces can contain ten million viruses, one million bacteria, one thousand parasite cysts and one hundred worm eggs.

Bob Edwards spoke with journalist Rose George, author of "The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters."

Rose George began her research in the sewers of London. There she met with the flushers of London’s sewers, named after the 19th century flushers who used rakes to flush the sewer contents down to the Thames River untreated.

Before London’s vast system of sewer tunnels was built, the city used on-site sanitation, which meant cesspools in the backyards of Londoners. But as London’s population increased, the system became grossly inadequate. When the service of emptying cesspools cleanly and hygienically became too expensive, people began discharging their cesspools directly into the Thames, culminating in “The Great Stink” of 1858.

“All the stuff going into the Thames obviously did not bode well for the noses of the metropolis,” says George. The summer of 1858 was hot and the smell was overwhelming for the Houses of Parliament with a front to the Thames. “The MPs held handkerchiefs to their noses while in the debating chamber and the curtains were soaked in lime and chloride to try and mask the smell.” Britain’s politicians passed a bill in a record-breaking ten days to build the sewers of London. 

During this time perfume and high heels became popular in London and Paris as city dwellers were forced to wade through filth in the streets.

London had the good fortune to employ the engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette. “Bazalgette is the least remembered in fact, even though he probably did the most to expand our lifespan and certainly banished cholera from the streets of London,” says George. Bazelgette orchestrated the construction of a network of sewers that now reaches about 30 thousand miles between London and Redding.

“At the time Bazalgette simply discharged all the sewage into the Thames again, but about twenty years after that he saw the light, after a terrible steamboat disaster when people died probably coughing from the sewage that was in the river water. Treatment plants were built at the outer reaches of the Thames and are still there today.”

Rose George does not like to use the word waste. In the United States and the United Kingdom, human waste is not wasted. “The liquid is cleaned and discharged into a water cause nearby. The solids actually end up as fertilizer.” But the use of biosolids, as they are known in the United States, is a cause for debate about whether this fertilizer should be used on land and for food crops. More than just human waste goes down sewers, it also contains industrial waste and pharmaceuticals ingested by people.

While 90 percent of sewage in the developng world goes untreated, sewage treatment is in the developed world is not perfect either. Waste water infrastructure suffers from underfunding, and sewer systems are not equipped to handle the ongoing growth in urban populations. “In London, our sewers were built for three million people and they were built with over-capacity because Bazalgette was such a wonderful engineer, but they now must serve about 10 to 15 million people, and the same happens in New York.” As a result, when sewers are overwhelmed, raw sewage is discharged into waterways.

"Because human waste can carry up to fifty communicable diseases, it is in fact a very potent weapon of mass destruction, which is why there is such a horrible death toll of children related to poor sanitation."

Chinese farmers have been using human waste as fertilizers for thousands of years. Now a government program provides another function for human waste, an energy supply. Biogas digesters are underground sealed tanks that digest human or animal excrement. The methane gas released can be used ad an energy supply for cooking.

But of all the countries Rose George visited, Indians live in the most close quarters with human waste. “The statistics in India are so stunning, seven hundred million people without toilets." As a result, open defecation is practiced in India, but it also has a robust history of activism about sanitation. 

Rose George investigated positive developments in the sanitation movement. While visiting the World Toilet Organization conference in Moscow, she found sanitation foot soldiers trying to make improvements in their own corners of the world. The Big Necessity explores this topic most of us don't like to think about, human waste and what to do with it.

Bob Edwards Weekend" is a two-hour interview showcase, in which celebrated host Bob Edwards highlights the life and work of interesting people, from newsmakers, historians, and authors to artists, actors, and regular folks too. The show is produced by XM Satellite Radio and distributed nationwide by PRI.

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