I well remember in early 1979 when I first informed a friend that I intended to compost my own manure and grow my own food with it. "Oh my God, you can't do that!"
"Worms and disease!"
A young English couple was visiting me one summer after I had been composting humanure for about six years. One evening, as dinner was being prepared, the couple suddenly understood the horrible reality of their situation: the food they were about to eat was recycled human shit. When this fact abruptly dawned upon them, it seemed to set off an instinctive alarm, possibly inherited directly from Queen Victoria. "We don't want to eat shit!" they informed me, rather distressed (that's an exact quote), as if in preparing dinner I had simply set a steaming turd on a plate in front of them with a knife, fork and napkin.
Fecophobia is alive and well and running rampant. One common misconception is that fecal material, when composted, remains fecal material. It does not. Humanure comes from the earth, and through the miraculous process of composting, is converted back into earth. When the composting process is finished, the end product is humus, not crap, and it is useful in growing food. My friends didn't understand this and despite my attempts to clarify the matter for their benefit, they chose to cling to their misconceptions. Apparently, some fecophobes will always remain fecophobes.
Allow me to make a radical suggestion: humanure is not dangerous. More specifically, it is not any more dangerous than the body from which it is excreted. The danger lies in what we do with humanure, not in the material itself. To use an analogy, a glass jar is not dangerous either. However, if we smash it on the kitchen floor and walk on it with bare feet, we will be harmed. If we use a glass jar improperly and dangerously, we will suffer for it, but that's no reason to condemn glass jars. When we discard humanure as a waste material and pollute our soil and water supplies with it, we are using it improperly, and that is where the danger lies. When we constructively recycle humanure by composting, it enriches our soil, and, like a glass jar, actually makes life easier for us.
Not all cultures think of human excrement in a negative way. For example, swear-words meaning excrement do not seem to exist in the Chinese language. The Tokyo bureau chief for the New York Times explains why: "I realized why people [in China] did not use words for excrement in a negative way. Traditionally, there was nothing more valuable to a peasant than [humanure]." 1 Calling someone a "humanure head" just doesn't sound like an insult. "Humanure for brains" doesn't work either. If you told someone they were "full of humanure," they'd probably agree with you. "Shit," on the other hand, is a substance that is widely denounced and has a long history of excoriation in the western world. Our ancestor's historical failure to responsibly recycle the substance caused monumental public health headaches. Consequently, the attitude that humanure itself is terribly dangerous has been embraced and promulgated up to the present day.
For example, a recently published book on the topic of recycling "human waste" begins with the following disclaimer: "Recycling human waste can be extremely dangerous to your health, the health of your community and the health of the soil. Because of the current limits to general public knowledge, [we] strongly discourage the recycling of human waste on an individual or community basis at this time and cannot assume responsibility for the results that occur from practicing any of the methods described in this publication." The author adds, "Before experimenting, obtain permission from your local health authority since the health risks are great." The author then elaborates upon a human "waste" composting methodology which includes segregating urine from feces, collecting the manure in 30 gallon plastic containers, and using straw rather than sawdust as a cover material in the toilet.2 All three of these procedures are ones I would discourage based on my 26 years of humanure composting experience — there is no need to go to the bother of segregating urine; a 30 gallon container is much too big and heavy to be able to handle easily; and sawmill sawdust does, in fact, work beautifully in a composting toilet, much better than straw. These issues will be discussed in the next chapter.
I had to ask myself why an author writing a book on recycling humanure would "strongly discourage the recycling of human waste," which seems counterproductive, to say the least. If I didn't already know that recycling humanure was easy and simple, I might be totally petrified at the thought of attempting such an "extremely dangerous" undertaking after reading that book. And the last thing anyone wants to do is get the local health authorities involved. If there is anyone who knows nothing about composting humanure, it's probably the local health authority, who receives no such training.
The "Bio-Dynamic" agricultural movement, founded by Dr. Rudolf Steiner, provides another example of fecophobia. Dr. Steiner has quite some following around the world and many of his teachings are followed almost religiously by his disciples. The Austrian scientist and spiritual leader had his own opinions about the recycling of humanure, based on intuition rather than on experience or science. He insisted that humanure must only be used to fertilize soil to grow plants to feed animals other than humans. The manure from those animals can then be used to fertilize soil to grow plants for human consumption. According to Steiner, humans must never get any closer to a direct human nutrient cycle than that. Otherwise, they will suffer "brain damage and nervous disorders." Steiner further warned against using "lavatory fluid," including human urine, which "should never be used as a fertilizer, no matter how well-processed or aged it is."3 Steiner, quite frankly, was ill-informed, incorrect, and fecopho-bic, and that fecophobia has no doubt rubbed off on some of his followers.
History is rife with humanure misconceptions. At one time, doctors insisted that human excrement should be an important and necessary part of one's personal environment. They argued that, "Fatal illness may result from not allowing a certain amount of filth to remain in [street] gutters to attract those putrescent particles of disease which are ever present in the air." At that time, toilet contents were simply dumped in the street. Doctors believed that the germs in the air would be drawn to the filth in the street and therefore away from people. This line of reasoning so influenced the population that many homeowners built their outhouses attached to their kitchens in order to keep their food germ-free and wholesome.4 The results were just the opposite — flies made frequent trips between the toilet contents and the food table.
By the early 1900s, the U.S. government was condemning the use of humanure for agricultural purposes, warning of dire consequences, including death, to those who would dare to do otherwise. A 1928 U.S. Department of Agriculture bulletin made the risks crystal clear: "Any spittoon, slop pail, sink drain, urinal, privy, cesspool, sewage tank, or sewage distribution field is a potential danger. A bit of spit, urine, or feces the size of a pin head may contain many hundred germs, all invisible to the naked eye and each one capable of producing disease. These discharges should be kept away from the food and drink of [humans] and animals. From specific germs that may be carried in sewage at any time, there may result typhoid fever, tuberculosis, cholera, dysentery, diarrhea, and other dangerous ailments, and it is probable that other maladies may be traced to human waste. From certain animal parasites or their eggs that may be carried in sewage there may result intestinal worms, of which the more common are the hookworm, roundworm, whipworm, eelworm, tapeworm, and seat worm.
Disease germs are carried by many agencies and unsuspectingly received by devious routes into the human body. Infection may come from the swirling dust of the railway roadbed, from contact with transitory or chronic carriers of disease, from green truck [vegetables] grown in gardens fertilized with night soil or sewage, from food prepared or touched by unclean hands or visited by flies or vermin, from milk handled by sick or careless dairymen, from milk cans or utensik washed with contaminated water, or from cisterns, wells, springs, reservoirs, irrigation ditches, brooks, or lakes receiving the surface wash or the underground drainage from sewage-polluted soil."
The bulletin continues, "In September and October, 1899, 63 cases of typhoid fever, resulting in five deaths, occurred at the Northampton (Mass.) insane hospital. This epidemic was conclusively traced to celery, which was eaten freely in August and was grown and banked in a plot that had been fertilized in the late winter or early spring with the solid residue and scrapings from a sewage filter bed situated on the hospital grounds."
And to drive home the point that human waste is highly dangerous, the bulletin adds, "Probably no epidemic in American history better illustrates the dire results that may follow one thoughtless act than the outbreak of typhoid fever at Plymouth, Pa., in 1885. In January and February of that year the night discharges of one typhoid fever patient were thrown out upon the snow near his home. These, carried by spring thaws into the public water supply, caused an epidemic running from April to
September. In a total population of about 8,000, 1,104 person were attacked by the disease and 114 died."
The U.S. government bulletin insisted that the use of human excrement as fertilizer was both "dangerous" and "disgusting." It warned that, "under no circumstances should such wastes be used on land devoted to celery, lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, cabbages, tomatoes, melons, or other vegetables, berries, or low-growing fruits that are eaten raw. Disease germs or particles of soil containing such germs may adhere to the skins of vegetables or fruits and infect the eater." The bulletin summed it up by stating, "Never use [human] waste to fertilize or irrigate vegetable gardens." The fear of human excrement was so severe it was advised that the contents of bucket toilets be burned, boiled, or chemically disinfected, then buried in a trench/
This degree of fecophobia, fostered and spread by government authorities and others who knew of no constructive alternatives to waste disposal, still maintains a firm grip on the western psyche. It may take a long time to eliminate. A more constructive attitude is displayed by scientists with a broader knowledge of the subject of recycling humanure for agricultural purposes. They realize that the benefits of proper humanure recycling "far outweigh any disadvantages from the health point of view." 6
It's already been mentioned that entire civilizations have recycled humanure for thousands of years. That should provide a fairly convincing testimony about the usefulness of humanure as an agricultural resource. Many people have heard of the "Healthy Hunzas," a people in what is now a part of Pakistan who reside among the Himalayan peaks, and routinely live to be 120 years old. The Hunzas gained fame in the United States during the 1960s health food era when several books were written about the fantastic longevity of this ancient people. Their extraordinary health has been attributed to the quality of their overall lifestyle, including the quality of the natural food they eat and the soil it's grown on. Few people, however, realize that the Hunzas also compost their humanure and use it to grow their food. They're said to have virtually no disease, no cancer, no heart or intestinal trouble, and they regularly live to be over a hundred years old while "singing, dancing and making love all the way to the grave."
According to Tompkins (1989), "In their manuring, the
Hunzakuts return everything they can to the soil: all vegetable parts and pieces that will not serve as food for humans or beast, including such fallen leaves as the cattle will not eat, mixed with their own seasoned excrement [emphasis mine]; plus dung and urine from their barns. Like their Chinese neighbors, the Hunzakuts save their own manure in special underground vats, clear of any contaminable streams, there to be seasoned for a good six months. Everything that once had life is given new to life through loving hands." 7
Sir Albert Howard wrote in 1947, "The Hunzas are described as far surpassing in health and strength the inhabitants of most other countries; a Hunza can walk across the mountains to Gilgit sixty miles away, transact his business, and return forthwith without feeling unduly fatigued." Sir Howard maintains that this is illustrative of the vital connection between a sound agriculture and good health, insisting that the Hunzas have evolved a system of farming which is perfect. He adds, "To provide the essential humus, every kind of waste [sic], vegetable, animal and human, is mixed and decayed together by the cultivators and incorporated into the soil; the law of return is obeyed, the unseen part of the revolution of the great Wheel is faithfully accomplished." 8 Sir Howard's view is that soil fertility is the real basis of public health.
A medical professional associated with the Hunzas claimed, "During the period of my association with these people I never saw a case of asthenic dyspepsia, of gastric or duodenal ulcer, of appendicitis, of mucous colitis, of cancer. .. Among these people the abdomen over-sensitive to nerve impressions, to fatigue, anxiety, or cold was unknown. Indeed their buoyant abdominal health has, since my return to the West, provided a remarkable contrast with the dyspeptic and colonic lamentations of our highly civilized communities."
Sir Howard adds, "The remarkable health of these people is one of the consequences of their agriculture, in which the law of return is scrupulously obeyed. All their vegetable, animal and human wastes [sic] are carefully returned to the soil of the irrigated terraces which produce the grain, fruit, and vegetables which feed them." 9
The Hunzas composted their organic material, thereby recycling it. This actually enhanced their personal health and the health of their community. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was apparently unaware of the effective natural process of composting in 1928 when they described the recycling of humanure as "dangerous and disgusting." No doubt the USDA would have confused the Hunzas, who had for centuries safely and constructively engaged in such recycling.
Clearly, even the primitive composting of humanure for agricultural purposes does not necessarily pose a threat to human health, as evidenced by the Hunzas. Yet, fecal contamination of the environment certainly can pose a threat to human health. Feces can harbor a host of disease organisms which can contaminate the environment to infect innocent people when human excrement is discarded as a waste material. In fact, even a healthy person apparently free of disease can pass potentially dangerous pathogens through their fecal material, simply by being a carrier. The World Health Organization estimates that 80% of all diseases are related to inadequate sanitation and polluted water, and that half of the world's hospital beds are occupied by patients who suffer from water-related diseases.11 As such, the composting of humanure would certainly seem like a worthwhile undertaking worldwide.
The following information is not meant to be alarming. It's included for the sake of thoroughness, and to illustrate the need to compost humanure, rather than to try to use it raw for agricultural purposes. When the composting process is side-stepped and pathogenic waste is dispersed into the environment, various diseases and worms can infect the population living in the contaminated area. This fact has been widely documented.
For example, consider the following quote from Jervis (1990): "The use of night soil [raw human fecal material and urine] as fertilizer is not without its health hazards. Hepatitis B is prevalent in Dacaiyuan [China], as it is in the rest of China. Some effort is being made to chemically treat [humanure] or at least to mix it with other ingredients before it is applied to the fields. But chemicals are expensive, and old ways die hard. Night soil is one reason why urban Chinese are so scrupulous about peeling fruit, and why raw vegetables are not part of the diet. Negative features aside, one has only to look at satellite photos of the green belt that surrounds China's cities to understand the value of night soil."12
On the other hand, "worms and disease" are not spread by properly prepared compost, nor by healthy people. There is no reason to believe that the manure of a healthy person is dangerous unless left to accumulate, pollute water with intestinal bacteria, or breed flies and/or rats, all of which are the results of negligence or bad custom-
*Much of the information in this section is adapted from Appropriate Technology for Water Supply and Sanitation, by Feachem et al., World Bank, 1980.10 This comprehensive work cites 394 references from throughout the world, and was carried out as part of the World Bank's research project on appropriate technology for water supply and sanitation.
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