We Should Have Started Drinking Our Own Pee A Long Time Ago


Photo: dmuth via Flickr/CC BY

The other week, I wrote a snarky headline about a city in drought-stricken Texas that unveiled a plan to build a water reuse plant that would allow residents to essentially drink their own recycled pee. Readers and commenters chided me for being sensational (guilty! hell, I admitted as much in the article) and claimed that such water treatment already happened regularly at plants across the nation.

Well, that's not quite true. But it should be. It's true that we treat sewage water, but we rarely recycle it for such useful purposes. And it's not that we don't have good enough technology -- we do. But public opinion so often vehemently opposes the concept that plans using it are scuttled. In other words, we should have started drinking our own pee a long time ago. Boston's public radio station WBUR tackled this story in a recent segment called 'Why Cleaned Waste Water Stays Dirty in Our Minds'. The story details the scientific advances in water treatment that led a cadre of enthused engineers and scientists to propose water reuse in the perennially too-dry state of California -- 14 years ago. Wherever such plants were proposed, however they were roundly and loudly rejected.

The engineers were baffled -- it's a logical solution to a dire problem: There's a major shortage of water. And there's a vast supply of urine generated every day that's easily treatable. So where's the communication breakdown?

Turns out it wasn't a communication breakdown, but a psychological one:

[Carol Nemeroff] works at the University of Southern Maine and studies psychological contagion. The term refers to the habit we all have of thinking -- consciously or not -- that once something has had contact with another thing, their parts are in some way joined.

"It's a very broad feature of human thinking," Nemeroff explains. "Everywhere we look, you can see contagion thinking." ... And according to Nemeroff, there are very good reasons why people think like this. As a basic rule of thumb for making decisions, when we're uncertain about realities in the world, contagion thinking has probably served us well. "If it's icky, don't touch it," says Nemeroff.

With this in mind, researchers embarked on a mission to find out how contagion thinking impacts water use, so "they recruited more than 2,000 people and gave them a series of detailed questionnaires that sought to break down exactly what would have to be done to wastewater to make it acceptable to the public to drink."

And you can probably guess the conclusion: The majority said that under no circumstances would they drink water that was once sewage. WBUR notes that "Around 60 percent of people are unwilling to drink water that has had direct contact with sewage, according to their research." Even when assured that it had been scientifically proven to be just as safe and clean as water from any other source.


Would you drink this if I told you it was just lemonade, despite its placement in this filthy article? Hm? Photo: j.reed via Flickr/CC BY

I probably don't have to waste too much digital ink pointing out how ridiculous this is: Droughts are wracking Texas that are so severe that livestock are dying of thirst. Water rationing is in full effect in many places. Wildfires devastate California year after year because it's so dry, and many municipalities grapple with water shortages annually. And yet we roundly reject something that could be a powerful part of the solution on the grounds that it's "icky". For further evidence of this principle in action, see the story about the typically-progressive Portland city government that dumped its entire store of water at one facility because one kid peed in it.

The researchers argue that we have to start dissociating treated drinking water from the waste whence it came, but I have another supplementary idea: Grow up, America. To me, this reflects a lack of education amongst citizens first and foremost, stemming from inadequate science education from an early age. It's another example of a severely lacking faith in science. But perhaps now, faced with ever-worsening conditions, we'll see some wider-spread agreement to further develop this technology.

It's about time: We could have been safely drinking our own urine for years now.

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