When was the last time a pastor delivered a Sunday sermon about feces? Or an imam mentioned poop during a Friday prayer? Or a rabbi brought up defecation in song during a Shabbat service? Toilet talk isn’t something we associate with our faith communities, but maybe it’s time we start.

Sanitation – proper collection, treatment, and disposal of human waste – is a large global challenge. While 29% of the global population lacks safe drinking water, an astounding 61% lack adequate sanitation and 892 million people practice open defecation 1United Nations. “Sustainable Development Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg6. That’s well over half of the humans on the planet who, as some delicately-phrased sources say, do not have a safe place to go to the bathroom. That’s the whole point: they don’t have a bathroom. And we all need a safe and sanitary place to poop. A lack of sanitation leads to contamination of water supplies, spread of (preventable) disease, and death, often in children under the age of 5 2World Health Organization. “Drinking-water” http://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/drinking-water.. Inadequate wastewater infrastructure also hinders economic and social development, especially education of girls, some of whom drop out of school when they begin menstruating 3Lusk-Stover, Oni. “Globally, periods are causing girls to be absent from school.” The World Bank. http://blogs.worldbank.org/education/globally-periods-are-causing-girls-be-absent-school.  due to lack of bathrooms and sanitary products.

This sanitation crisis was the motivation behind designating November 19 as World Toilet Day 4UN Water. “World Toilet Day 2018.” http://www.worldtoiletday.info/wtd2018/.. As we reflect on giving thanks and expressing gratitude in the month of November, I enjoy the reminder on World Toilet Day to be thankful for toilets. Of the innovations we often take for granted, the toilet is near the top of the list. Imagine a day without toilets (or port-a-potties, latrines, or other sanitation infrastructure). When “nature calls”, we would be suffering without toilets.

Those of us with the luxury of toilets introduce new water challenges based on what we flush. After years of using toilets as garbage cans, we now see traces of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in our wastewater treatment plants, sometimes termed “contaminants of emerging concern” 5U.S. Geological Survey. “Contaminants of Emerging Concern in the Environment.” https://toxics.usgs.gov/investigations/cec/.. Most of that wastewater treatment infrastructure was not designed to remove trace amounts of over-the-counter pain medication, sunscreen, and other contaminants. And then there’s so-called “flushable” wipes, which yes, are able to be flushed but definitely should not go down the toilet. An August 2018 New York Times headline completely nailed the issue: “Should I Flush It? Most Often, the Answer is No” 6Caron, Christina. “Should I Flush It? Most Often, the Answer is No.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/25/science/do-not-flush-down-toilet.html..

In the context of sanitation, we as humans are apart from nature. For human health and safety, we should collect our waste – separating it from ourselves and our drinking water – and treat it before discharging it back to the environment. In a strange passage of Deuteronomy (23:12-14), God commands the Israelites regarding sanitation practices: “when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with [a trowel] and then cover up your excrement”. Contain your poop, away from human contact.

Yet we are not separate from nature: we are a part of the environment in which we live. Actions we take in caring for the earth are the same as caring for ourselves. There is immense human suffering around a lack of sanitation; meanwhile those of us with flushing toilets have pushed that infrastructure to the limit. As our diverse faith communities work to alleviate suffering, it’s time to take a critical look at both caring for humans and caring for the earth. So, let’s talk about poop and take actions both locally and globally to expand, improve, and maintain sanitation infrastructure.

Be thankful for your toilet. Help support global sanitation efforts. Happy World Toilet Day.

References   [ + ]

1.United Nations. “Sustainable Development Goal 6: Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.” https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdg6
2.World Health Organization. “Drinking-water” http://www.who.int/en/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/drinking-water.
3.Lusk-Stover, Oni. “Globally, periods are causing girls to be absent from school.” The World Bank. http://blogs.worldbank.org/education/globally-periods-are-causing-girls-be-absent-school.
4.UN Water. “World Toilet Day 2018.” http://www.worldtoiletday.info/wtd2018/.
5.U.S. Geological Survey. “Contaminants of Emerging Concern in the Environment.” https://toxics.usgs.gov/investigations/cec/.
6.Caron, Christina. “Should I Flush It? Most Often, the Answer is No.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/25/science/do-not-flush-down-toilet.html.