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Toilet Reading for Today

This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues. Today is World Toilet Day — and as it happens, there has been a flush of toilet news all week. First, there was the world’s most expensive toilet: the second sanitation unit for the International Space Station (ISS) that was...


This post is part of a special National Geographic news series on global water issues.

Today is World Toilet Day — and as it happens, there has been a flush of toilet news all week.

First, there was the world’s most expensive toilet: the second sanitation unit for the International Space Station (ISS) that was lifted into orbit by Space Shuttle Endeavor last week.

Needed for the planned expansion of the ISS from three to six crew members in 2009, the new toilet (photo above, courtesy NASA) was reported to have cost $19,000,000, which probably makes it the world’s most expensive potty.

But this is no ordinary toilet; it will be able to automatically transfer urine to a device that can generate drinking water.

Second toilet news item: Only yesterday I was reading a journal about Norway’s scientific research when I came across an item about urban sanitation in medieval England and Scandinavia.

sanitation-poster-1.jpgAccording to Dolly Jorgensen, researcher at Norwegian University of Science & Technology, Trondheim, Norway, there is a connection between “private need” and “public order.”

Her PhD dissertation investigates the workings of late medieval sanitation technologies, particularly how solutions to sanitation issues were constructed as a relationship between city government and urban inhabitants.

“Medieval sanitation developed through the reciprocal interaction between physical conditions and complex social systems,” Jorgensen writes. “The available technologies and environmental demands prompted the development of certain social arrangements at the city level such as the growth of specialist sanitation jobs, collection of taxes and direct participation of residents.

“At the same time, social arrangements enabled some technological choices such as the provision of ward dung carts and river cleansing operations.

“In other words, some forms of city governmental organization resulted from the demands of material conditions of urban life and, likewise, physical sanitation technologies depended on governmental structures to be effective.”

Talk about the seat of government!

Fast forward to the toilet habits of today’s England (toilet news item three): According to BBC News, research suggests that reading, chatting and texting are among the favorite activities of Britons on the toilet.

“The study suggests more than 14 million people in the UK read newspapers, books and magazines on the loo,” the Beeb reported. “The poll points to eight million people talking — either on the phone or to family — and one in five send texts.”

The survey of more than 2,000 people was commissioned by charity Tearfund for World Toilet Day, which aims to highlight poor sanitary conditions.

sanitation-poster-2.jpgNovember 19 was declared World Toilet Day in 2001 by 17 toilet associations around the world. Since then there has been established an annual World Toilet Summit and many other regional conferences.

But why do we have a World Toilet Day?

Since most of us in the world use toilets several times a day without giving them a thought (perhaps we’re too busy texting, reading, etc.), it is worth pausing one day a year to consider toilets.

There is the issue of basic hygiene. Surveys repeatedly find that many people who do have access to restrooms do not wash their hands after using them, spreading infections and diseases to others they touch.

Then there is the issue of “potty parity,” which focuses on the need to educate architects and builders to provide proportionately more facilities for women than for men in public restrooms (based entirely on the fact that men’s anatomy enables them to use facilities more quickly).

But the greatest reason for World Toilet Day must surely be the fact that some 2.6 billion people worldwide do not have access to sanitation.

Worldwide, about 1.7 million deaths a year–90 percent of which are children–are attributed to unsafe water, poor sanitation and hygiene, mainly through infectious diarrhea, according to the World Bank. Access to sanitation, the practice of good hygiene, and a safe water supply could save 1.5 million children a year.

“Improved sanitation increases primary school enrollment, reduces illnesses so children miss fewer school days, increases productivity among adults, provides safety to women, and reduces the pollution of water resources,” the Bank says.

What would life be like without toilets? WaterAid, a British charity trying to overcome poverty by enabling the world’s poorest people to gain access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene education, produced this fun video of how our lives might be without toilets. The two awareness-raising posters on this page can be downloaded from their site.

Additional information:

World Toilet Organization

Related stories from National Geographic News:

Lack of Toilets Harming Health of Billions, UN Report Says
For Texas Toilet Seat Artist, 642 and Counting
Human Waste Used by 200 Million Farmers, Study Says

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Author Photo David Max Braun
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn