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Harnessing the Power of Microscopic Organisms

[critters eating away a turd]

"Anyone starting out from scratch to plan a civilization would hardly have designed such a monster as our collective sewage system. Its existence gives additional point to the sometimes asked question, Is there any evidence of intelligent life on the planet Earth?"
G. R. Stewart

There are four general ways to deal with human excrement. The first is to dispose of it as a waste material. People do this by defecating in drinking water supplies, or in outhouses or latrines. Most of this waste ends up dumped, incinerated, buried in the ground, or discharged into waterways.

The second way to deal with human excrement is to apply it raw to agricultural land. This is popular in Asia where "night soil," or raw human excrement, is spread on fields. Although this keeps the soil enriched, it also acts as a vector, or route of transmission, for disease organisms. In the words of Dr. J. W. Scharff, former chief health officer in Singapore, "Though the vegetables thrive, the practice of putting human [manure] directly on the soil is dangerous to health. The heavy toll of sickness and death from various enteric diseases in China is well-known." The World Health Organization adds, "Night soil is sometimes used as a fertilizer, in which case it presents great hazards by promoting the transmission of food-borne enteric [intestinal] disease, and hookworm." 1 (It is interesting, incidentally, to note Dr. Scharff's only alternative to the use of raw night soil: "We have been inclined to regard the installation of a water-carried system as one of the final aims of civilization.")2 This book, therefore, is not about recycling night soil by raw applications to land, which is a practice that should be discouraged when sanitary alternatives, such as composting, are available.

The third way to deal with human excrement is to slowly compost it over an extended period of time. This is the way of most commercial composting toilets. Slow composting generally takes place at temperatures below that of the human body, which is 37°C or 98.6°F. This type of composting eliminates most disease organisms in a matter of months, and should eliminate all human pathogens eventually. Low temperature composting creates a useful soil additive that is at least safe for ornamental gardens, horticultural, or orchard use.

Thermophilic composting is the fourth way to deal with human excrement. This type of composting involves the cultivation of heat-loving (thermophilic) microorganisms in the composting process. Thermophilic microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, can create an environment in the compost which destroys disease organisms that can exist in humanure, converting humanure into a friendly, pleasant-smelling, humus safe for food gardens. Thermophilically composted humanure is entirely different from night soil. Perhaps it is better stated by the experts in the field: "From a survey of the literature of night soil treatment, it can be clearly concluded that the only fail-safe night soil method which will assure effective and essentially total pathogen inactivation, including the most resistant helminths [intestinal worms] such as Ascaris [roundworm] eggs and all other bacterial and viral pathogens, is heat treatment to a temperature of 55° to 60°C for several hours." 3 The experts are specifically referring to the heat of the compost pile.

Source: The Humanure Handbook. Jenkins Publishing, PO Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. To order, phone: 1-800-639-4099.

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