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Excrement Happens
by Rachel, April 1, 1999

In Europe, a pattern evolved: The first stage was urinating and defecating on the ground near dwellings. As population density increased, this became intolerable and the community pit evolved. For privacy, this evolved into the pit privy or "outhouse" - a privacy structure atop a hole in the ground. Despite what many people may think, the pit privy is not environmentally sound - it deprives the soil of the nutrients in excrement, and by concentrating wastes it promotes pollution of groundwater by those same nutrients. Before the advent of piped water in the late 18th century, European towns stored excreta in cesspools (lined pits with some drainage of liquids) or in vault privies (tight tanks without any drainage). The "night soil" was removed by "scavengers" and was either taken to farms, or dumped into pits in the ground or into rivers. In general, Europeans never developed a clear and consistent perception of the nutrient value of excrement, as Asians had done.

In ancient Rome, the wealthy elite had indoor toilets and running water to remove excrement via sewers. Later, European cities developed crude sewer systems - usually open gutters but sometimes covered trenches along the center or sides of streets - though they had no running water until the 18th or even 19th centuries. The putrefying matter in these stagnant ditches did not move until it rained - thus the name "storm sewers" - and many cities prohibited the dumping of human wastes into such sewers. With the advent of piped water, things changed dramatically. In this country, the first waterworks was installed in Philadelphia in 1802 and by 1860 136 cities were enjoying piped water systems. By 1880, the number was up to 598. With piped water, per-capita water use increased at least 10-fold, from 3-5 gallons per person per day to 30-50 gallons per person per day or even more.

Water piped into homes had to be piped out again. This caused cesspools to overflow, thus increasing the problems of odors and of water-borne diseases. To solve these problems, cesspools were connected to the city's crude sewer systems which ran along the streets. The result was epidemics of cholera. In Paris in 1832, 20,000 people died of cholera. Around the world, the combination of piped water and open sewers has consistently led to outbreaks of cholera. To solve this problem, engineers designed closed sewer systems, pipes using water as the vehicle for carrying away excrement. This solution engendered a debate among engineers: some wanted to return sewage toagricultural land, others argued that "water purifies itself" and wanted to pipe sewage straight into lakes, rivers, and oceans. By 1910, the debate was over and sewage was being dumped into water bodies on a grand scale.