In all the years I have been writing about toilets, I have noted that the toilet itself was not a significant invention, but that the development of the sewage system was. Otherwise, you are just dumping filthy water into a hole in the ground, and that doesn’t work at all. That's what I saw in Ecuador a few years ago (shown above), toilets that dumped into the jungle behind. They are abandoned now, replaced by composting toilets.
But apparently, according to a shocking article in the New York Times by Sabrina Tavernise, that is what is happening in half a million American homes.
Some of these homes have septic systems that have failed, but many of them just dump it out onto the ground. Septic systems are expensive:
“The bottom line is, I can’t afford a septic system,” said Cheryl Ball, a former cook who had a heart attack several years ago and receives disability payments. She lives in a grassy field on which only three of seven homes have septic tanks.
Just like in London 150 years ago, running water came first and people just thought hey, I can connect a toilet up to it. So in one house:
They obtained running water in the early 1990s, she said, and used an outhouse until the mid-1990s. So their white toilet with a fuzzy green cover was a marker of progress. A plastic pipe carries its contents outside and empties into a wooded area not far from the house. There is no visible pooling of sewage, but there are other problems. “The smell gets so bad,” said Ms. Rudolph, sitting on her porch guarding her chicken coop against a marauding fox. When it rains, she wages war with her toilet. One recent downpour brought its contents gurgling up to the rim.
In Alabama, this is apparently common. An official with the department of Public Health complains:
“‘My parents had a pipe that ran into the woods, and that’s good enough for me,’” Mr. Pugh said, explaining a common argument. “But we didn’t know as much about disease back then. People are more educated nowadays. They are more concerned.”
What is even worse, even when people put in a septic system, it often doesn’t work because the clay soil is impermeable to water. Environmental engineering professor Kevin White explains:
Rural wastewater is usually managed with a septic tank and a drain field, which slowly infiltrates the wastewater into the ground,” Professor White said. “Well, it won’t go into the ground here. Period.”
So really, they need sewer systems, but these are very expensive, especially when the density is so low and the communities so poor. They have been looking for options; “There was even talk of self-composting toilets.”
There is no word on why the talk about composting toilets ended there, because they would be an obvious solution to this problem. There are many systems that require very little maintenance, no more than a septic system really, that could solve this problem. The Gates Foundation famously put $ 42 million into developing new toilet technology for less developed countries, but surely, with half a million homes not having proper bathrooms, there should be more attention paid to the problems right here in North America.