Stool, excrement and other filth: a brief fecal history of the challenges (social and health) that remain to be resolved

In November 1539 the King of France issued an edict forcing Parisians to keep all their waste at home. Faeces, urine and other human waste, which until then was thrown into tubs on public roads, should now be stored as God (and the king) commanded. Francisco I not only forced to build a cesspool in each house, but threatened to expropriate the farms that did not. This was just a cairn along the way. A milestone, I mean.

Between the decision of Lucio Tarquinio Prisco to start the works of the Cloaca Máxima in the Rome of 600 BC and the statements of Damir Brdjanovic, professor at the Delft Institute, proposing to replace coal with dry feces a few weeks ago, there is a whole story social, economic and health of human waste. A story that has made us what we are and that reminds us of all that we lack to be.

An opportunity that smells bad

They say that when the Emperor Vespasian decided to impose a tax on the Cloaca Máxima, his son, Tito, reproached him for trying to get money from the stools and urine. The emperor approached with a bag full of sesterces and asked if his scent bothered him.

Titus (who would be insolent and somewhat trabucaire, but smelled perfectly) said no, and Vespasian answered with his now famous "Pecunia non olet". That is, "money doesn't smell." Perhaps it was there that our relationship with excrement was twisted. Florian Werner in 'Dark Matter: Cultural History of Shit' explained that, during Roman times, latrines were one of the centers on which the social life of the Empire revolved.

But something changed. If we listen to the French psychoanalyst Dominique Laporte, excrement (such as sex) began to make invisible through the centuries. Some historians think that the popular vision of the Apocalypse as a place of "fire, physical tears, fetid smells and baths in excrement" promoted by the early church contributed to promote that change. Be that as it may, everything eschatological became something to hide.

The urine that won a war

And despite that, it was something we were forced to return to again and again. In the 1940s, penicillin came as a gift from heaven to solve a lot of problems caused by World War II and the long (and painful) post-war period. However, despite the enormous effort of scientists and pharmaceuticals, there was not for everyone

"Despite efforts to increase crop yield, 2,000 liters of mold fluid was needed to obtain enough penicillin to treat a single case of sepsis." Imagine the technical challenge they had to face. Luckily, as always, the answer was where we least imagined: in the urine.

About 95 percent of all penicillin administered was excreted, four hours after consumption and in perfect condition, in the pee. This meant that, due to its particular pharmacodynamics, we could recover it from crystallized urine. Checkmate, bacteria.

Over time, we found better ways to produce penicillin and urine, which had been somewhat capable of winning a war and a quick source of ammonia, phosphorus, or toothpaste, returned to urinals. This is just one example of an unquestionable reality: human waste is a real gem, and yet, as I say, working with it has been repeatedly frowned upon.

From health problem to business opportunity

This cultural prejudice makes it difficult and slow to face the problems derived from our stools. So slow that, according to the UN, 60% of the world population (4.5 billion people) do not have toilets or, at best, only have deficient systems. This means that 892 million continue to relieve themselves outdoors and that up to 1800 million consume water with a high risk of being contaminated.

Given these figures, some people think that the key (as with Vespasiano) is in the money. In 2015, the world was estimated to produce 1,043,000 tons of fecal matter (a.k.a. poop) and about ten billion liters of urine. Only with the excrement we could build 114 Eiffel Towers one after the other. If, as Brdjanovic said, "fecal sludge is a health problem, but also an opportunity", we live on a huge gold mine that we only need to know how to take advantage of.

That we have to learn to take advantage of, in fact. It seems unbelievable that thousands of years later our great problems follow something so obvious: it is time to take it seriously and drain that cesspool of our history and future.

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