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The Pandemic Proved That Our Toilets Are Useless

Sewage systems' core technologies were developed more than 100 years ago

In March of last year, the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic came knocking, and everyone was suddenly obsessed with—of all things—toilet paper. Store shelves emptied out and remained vacant. People were selfishly hoarding, onlookers claimed, or just wanted to feel a sense of control amid uncertainty. Others rightly pointed out that people simply needed more toilet paper than usual if they were going to be home all the time, instead of going to school and to work, and that it wasn’t easy for the supply chains to reroute it. Many changed their toilets altogether, with bidet companies reporting mass orders.

A lot of the country seemed surprised by this seemingly odd turn of events—but I wasn’t. As a science and environmental journalist who writes about sanitation, I know that nearly every human drama comes with a toilet aspect, whether we talk about it or not. Urinating and defecating are everyday human functions, and health and economic crises such as the pandemic often throw into stark relief the significance of having access to a clean and safe place to relieve ourselves. Times like these can also betray the vulnerabilities in our toilets, and more importantly, reveal how they need to change in order to help us better cope with the problems of the future.

Last spring, while consumers stressed about how they’d wipe, scientists learned that infected people shed bits of the coronavirus’s genetic material in their stool. Their immediate concern: Could sewage be a major cause of outbreaks? The answer was ultimately no. But that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. The fact is, while our toilet systems have done a great deal for public health, the core technologies were developed more than a hundred years ago—at a time when people couldn’t conceive of many of the challenges that we face today. On top of that, much of the hardware in the ground is reaching the end of its lifespan and crumbling due to a lack of investment in its maintenance and upkeep. This year, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave US wastewater infrastructure a D+ in its annual report card. There’s altogether too much poop around, and it’s creating a public health and environmental hazard—pandemic or not.

Please select this link to read the complete article from WIRED.

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