Re: GBlist: toilets

Hal Levin (
Tue, 11 Feb 1997 17:08:39 -0800

At 02:13 PM 2/11/97 -0700, Ron Sutcliffe wrote:

"OK Hal I give you that you were emotionally invested but I will correct
you on the pit privy part if I may."

"Pit privies were directly responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in
the mid 19th century in urban areas, which lead to the acceptance of
waterbourne sewerage technology. Pit privies and septic tanks can
develop direct pahtogenic pathways to watertables and wells. I know of
no pit privy which effectively excludes all vectors (possible
intermediate carriers of disease causing organisms,'pathogens').
Nitrate/nitrite infiltration from sources like pit privies and septic
tanks into surface and groundwaters poses public health risks. The pit
privy generally is anaerobic (without air) and the anaerobic microbial
population offgasses hydrogen sulfide which at ten parts per million,
OSHA says is the upper acceptable exposure limit. Hydrogen sulfide is
an immediate threat to life and health at 300 parts per million. The
advancement of society beyond the urban pit privy is thought to be the
single most important technological breakthrough since the industrial
revolution.... to this day!, having increased the quality of life of a
large portion of the population of the developed world mostly
irrespective of social class. There are some of us who challenge the
manner in which we have progressed beyond the pit privy, but very few
dispute the validity of that advancement."

I have lived on ex-urban property for the last 26 years - I have been on
septic tanks for all of that time. I was comparing the pit privy to modern
septic tanks and to some extent to municipal wastewater treatment plants.
(Here in Santa Cruz, the outfall goes into the Monterey Bay.) The mouth of
San Lorenzo River must be constantly monitored to protect swimmers or
would-be swimmers at the nearby, very popular beaches and surfers all around
the area. This is because of the numerous septic tank disasters upstream
along the San Lorenzo R. In Sacramento, our state's capitol, when there is
heavy rainfall, the Regional Sewage Plant simply diverts the flow into the
Sacramento River because it cannot handle the combined flow of sewers and
storm drains.

These are not safe methods of human waste disposal. The Nineteenth Century
presented many health hazards not generally seen today both because of
effective pollution prevention and because of the advent of antibiotics and
other medical treatments. I do not advocate pit privies. I only make the
point because it is an illusion most people share that septic tanks and
municipal sewage systems are safe.

BTW, are you really suggesting that Hydrogen sulfide is a significant hazard
of pit privies? Lots of things that are around us all the time (CO, for
example) are a serious hazard at high enough concentrations. Do people
actually find these life-threatening concentrations of hydrogen sulfide
coming from pit privies? If your answer is affirmative, please give me some
references to peer-reviewed literature. I am more than a little curious.

Hal Levin <>
2548 Empire Grade, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Tel. 408 425 3946 Fax 408 426 6522

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