You and I are lucky. We’re not subjected to the constant threat of disease from our toilets.
Oh, sure, I’ve contracted the heebie-jeebies from the very sight of some public restrooms I’ve encountered. But for the most part, we Americans don’t have to worry about being sickened or even dying because of inadequate sanitation facilities.
Not everyone is so fortunate.
In much of the world, people eliminate in open pits or even bushes, fouling water supplies and exposing waste to disease-carrying insects. The United Nations says inadequate sanitation and unsafe water cause 88 percent of deaths from diarrhea, the leading cause of death around the world.
Even more tragically, poor sanitation kills a child every 20 seconds, or 1.5 million children a year, the U.N. says.
American Standard is working to change that, and you can help.
Working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the toilet manufacturer has developed a hygienic latrine pan that seals off waste from the open air. The company is working to make the pans available and affordable for people in developing countries, and it’s also donating hundreds of thousands of them to the poorest of the poor.
American Standard has pledged to donate one latrine pan for each of its Champion toilets sold in the United States and Canada in 2013. It will also make a donation for every 100 likes or shares on its Flush for Good Facebook page, www.flushforgood.com.
Jim McHale, American Standard’s head of engineering, said he had been aware of the global sanitation crisis for several years through his work on water issues. So when the Gates Foundation announced its Reinvent the Toilet Challenge to improve sanitation worldwide, “I contacted them and said, ‘We want to help.’ ”
McHale said the foundation is focusing mainly on reinventing what he called the downstream piece of the problem, meaning infrastructures such as sanitary sewers. But while that challenge is being worked on, he proposed a shorter-term project that can make an immediate impact.
McHale’s team concentrated on improving the pit latrines they saw in use in Bangladesh during a trip there last year. The latrines are holes in the ground about 6 to 8 feet deep, each covered with a concrete slab that holds a plastic toilet pan somewhat similar to a dry toilet bowl. A hole in the pan allows the waste to fall through, but it also gives easy access to flies and other insects that transmit bits of waste to people’s food.
Plus, the latrines are just unpleasant, McHale said. “These things smell horrible.”
The American Standard engineers developed what they call the SaTo, short for Safe Toilet. It’s similar to the toilet pans already in use in Bangladesh, except it has a trap door that seals after use.
The SaTo pan is designed to accommodate the traditional flushing system used in the area, McHale said. A latrine user fills a teapot-like vessel called a bodna with water and uses some of it for cleansing and some for washing down the toilet pan and flushing the waste through the hole.
Unlike the old-style latrine pans, though, the SaTo has a flap over the hole. The weight of the water causes the flap to open, and then a counterweight makes it slam shut, McHale said. A small amount of water remains in the toilet pan, forming a seal that blocks insects and odors.
McHale said American Standard’s main goal is to commercialize the SaTo, because it believes the free market is the only sustainable means of distributing the product. It launched the SaTo last month with a partner company that will sell it in local markets for about $1.50.
Even though most Bangladeshis can afford that, he said there are still some who can’t. Those people will benefit from American Standard’s donation of latrine pans to BRAC USA and WaterAid, charities that provide latrines to destitute people and will incorporate the SaTo technology.
McHale said the company is now talking with the Gates Foundation about developing another safe-toilet product for parts of the world where water is not as readily available.
He foresees this type of technology becoming a large and profitable part of American Standard’s business in 10 years.
“The ultimate goal is to improve people’s lives, hopefully save some lives,” he said.
A worthy goal, indeed.
Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also become a fan on Facebook at http://tinyurl.com/mbbreck, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.