From the year in pee and poop to my advocacy for the selective flush, I've accidentally become known as TreeHugger's pee and poop correspondent. Even then, most of our discussions around toilet issues seem to revolve around how to dispose of these waste streams safely and not the wonderful and sometimes surprising things that they can do for us.
So here's to a more positive note. Let's look at some ways that urine can help save humanity.
55,000-year-old urine used to track climate change
Most of us would recoil at the thought of ancient, accumulated, dried-out urine. But not climate scientists. As reported by Michael, it turns out that rock hyrax urine can be used to track our changing climate—much like ice cores or tree rings—because this small, African mammal "forms communities that live in the same rock fissures for very long periods of time, and they use the same place to pee every day."
But what do scientists look for? Pollen, bits of leaves, grasses, and gas bubbles apparently. It turns out hyrax urine is thick, viscous and dries quickly. Which is good to know. I guess.
Urinal monitors key health indicators
Urine samples have long been a diagnostic tool for health professionals, but what if all of us could took a regular urine sample to keep track of how our bodies are operating? The only trouble is that peeing in a test tube and then running a bunch of diagnostic tests does not seem quite as pleasurable as doing your business and then drinking your morning coffee. Luckily, technology may have an answer for us. Designer Royce Zhang has developed a smart urinal which monitors everything from sugar levels, PH, red/white blood cells and more.
Exposing links between BPA and heart disease
Speaking of diagnostics, urine is playing a key role in revealing how key environmental toxins like BPA are finding their way into our bodies and, more importantly, how those toxins are impacting our health. As Sara Novak has reported, extensive sampling of urine has shown a correlation between BPA levels and heart disease:
Researchers used urine samples from 758 study participants that were initially considered healthy but later developed heart disease and 861 participants that were considered healthy and did not develop heart disease. The study found that those who had heart disease also had higher concentrations of BPA in their urine.
In other news, urine samples were also used to expose alarmingly high levels of arsenic in children's blood streams, and pointing researchers to the fact that arsenic-laced chicken feed was the culprit.
Growing our food (and offsetting our aviation emissions?)
As Mat already reported, some advocates of "peecycling" claim that using urine to fertilize our fields could save 180,000,000 tons of CO2 emissions, or the equivalent of approximately half of our global aviation-related emissions. Urine as fertilizer is, of course, nothing new. We're big advocates of peeing on your compost and urine-separating toilets as a remedy for peak phosphorous. We've also seen how urine-fertilized tomato plants can outperform their synthetically aided counterparts.
A word of caution is needed though. The world's largest urine separating and composting toilet experiment in rural China (presumably the one referenced in this video) was recently brought to an end due to complaints from residents and technological hurdles.
OK, this one really is kind of disgusting. Even for someone with a toilet fixation like me. But NASA is experimenting with forward osmosis filtering systems to create sugary, flavored energy drinks from astronauts' own waste fluids. This might be useful for the rest of us if climate change continues to disrupt the hydrological cycle. Even if we don't end up in Dune-like space suits drinking our own pee, there's a strong case to be made for recycling waste water on a municipal-scale. It might even provide further incentives for us to remove the toxins from our environment so we can actually do it safely.