Rivers, Lakes, Oceans and Sanitation

by Larry Losoncy, PhD

The first waterborne toilet system was for the queen of England. Designed by John Crapper, it carried sanitary waste into the Thames. John was knighted for his invention. His last name has become famous. Thus was born the notion of flushing away human waste as a convenience.

In the United States this convenience gradually became the norm until in most places flush toilets are required by ordinance and alternative systems must be justified. There was no science involved. Nobody knew that cholera, typhoid and a large variety of intestinal diseases were spread from drinking contaminated water. It was only after cholera killed literally thousands of people in the United States that the connection between contaminated drinking water and disease was established through medical science. Interestingly enough the dangers of drinking from water containing human waste did absolutely nothing to discourage the practice of dumping human waste into rivers, streams and lakes. People liked their flush toilets!

Instead, regulations for treating the human waste before dumping it into rivers, lakes and oceans began to emerge. As research about water quality becomes more and more refined so too are the regulations refined. Pre-science assumptions, however, continue to be popular in western civilizations. Three assumptions, in particular, have gotten us where we are today (in big trouble). Water and human waste go together. Water and human waste seem like such a natural fit. After all, everything dissolves in water. Water is magical, the very symbol of clean. This myth dies hard because we cannot see the germs and deadly chemicals in water. One good way to dispel this myth quickly is to invite a person to drink from a beautiful blue stream gurgling through the green woods but point out that cows graze upstream! It is safe to put human waste into rivers, lakes and oceans. There is so much water, how could a little human sanitary waste make any difference? Besides, water washes everything away, mixes it up, and turns waste matter safe through its own recycling processes. The people drawing drinking water from the Thames got sick after the folks with big houses upstream followed the example of the queen. But nobody made the connection. Human waste put back into the ground will be taken care of by nature. Sometimes this assumption is based on the observation that animals deposit their waste matter into the ground all the time, so that must be the natural way.

The fact is that most animals actually deposit their waste on top of the ground, exposing it to air, sun and oxygen. The waste dries and decomposes. It is not accurate to compare the process of septic systems, for example, to that of a cow paddy. And for those who advocate putting human waste straight into the ground without any intermediary treatment it needs to be said that this is nearly the same as putting it straight into rivers, lakes and oceans. The waste will work its way into the ground water and travel to the nearest body of water.

Three Options

Industrialized nations have three primary methods for disposing of human sanitary waste. The first is a refinement of John Crapper’s system. We collect the waste and run it through treatment plants, then dump the treated wastewater. The second method is with use of septic systems. The waste is treated and then leeched into the ground in the form of treated liquids. The third method is with the use of non-discharge or zero-discharge sanitation treatment systems that capture and treat the waste instead of putting it directly into water or the ground. These are known as alternative on-site wastewater treatment systems. The most common of these systems are composting systems which have as the final product material which mixes into the ground in solid form as a soil conditioner or enrichment.

Historically, the disposal of human waste in the United States was unregulated. With settlements came the beginning of local ordinances to control what could and could not be done. Then came regulations based on health concerns. Health departments sprang up as research disclosed the direct link between contaminated water and disease. Public health protection has driven the regulation of human waste and the industries that produce systems and products needed to treat and dispose of the waste. The new element contributing to the regulatory mix is environmental science. Study of environmental processes, including both chemistry and biology, contribute to an understanding of what happens when human waste gets put into streams, rivers, lakes, oceans and the ground. Every new piece of information brings good news and bad news. It is good news that we can understand the processes at work in our environment. It is bad and very expensive news that we must change our ways of thinking about sanitation or doom the quality of our water.


Larry Losoncy is the president of Clean Up America, Inc. The company manufactures and markets  The Sanitizer™ non-discharge, evaporative toilet.  To learn more about The Sanitizer™ please go to http://www.cuaproducts.com.