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The belief that humanure is unsafe for agricultural use is called fecophobia, a term, I admit, I made up. People who are fecophobic can suffer from severe fecophobia or a relatively mild fecophobia, the mildest form being little more than a healthy concern about personal hygiene. Severe fecophobics do not want to use humanure for food growing, composted or not. They believe that it's dangerous and unwise to use such a material in their garden. Milder fecophobics may, however, compost humanure and use the finished compost in horticultural applications. People who are not fecophobic may compost humanure and utilize it in their food garden. Some may even use it raw, a practice not recommended by the author.

It is well known that humanure contains the potential to harbor disease-causing microorganisms (pathogens). This potential is directly related to the state of health in the population which is producing the excrement. If a family is composting its own humanure, for example, and it is a healthy family, the danger in the production and use of the compost will be very low. If one is composting the humanure from orphanages in Haiti where intestinal parasites are endemic, then extra precautions must be taken to ensure maximum pathogen death. Compost temperatures must rise significantly above the temperature of the human body (37°C or 98.6°F) in order to begin eliminating disease-causing organisms, as human pathogens thrive at temperatures similar to that of their hosts. On the other hand, most pathogens only have a limited viability outside the human body, and given enough time, will die even in low-temperature compost.

Humanure is best rendered hygienically safe by thermophilic composting. To achieve this, humanure can simply be collected and deposited on an outdoor compost pile like any other compost material. Open-air, outdoor compost piles with good access are easily managed and offer a no-cost, odorless method to achieve the thermophilic composting of humanure. However, such a system does require the regular collection and cartage of the organic material to the compost pile, making it relatively labor intensive when compared to low-temperature, stationary, homemade and commercial composting toilets.

Many people will use a composting toilet only if they do not have to do anything in any way related to the toilet contents. Therefore, most homemade and commercial composting toilets are comprised of large composting chambers under the toilet seat. The organic material is deposited directly into a composting chamber, and the contents are emptied only very occasionally.

Thermophilic conditions do not seem to be common in these toilets, for several reasons. For one, many commercial composting toilets are designed to dehydrate the organic material deposited in them. This dehydration is achieved by electrical fans, which rob the organic mass of moisture and heat. Commercial toilets also often strive to reduce the quantity of material collecting in the composting chamber (mostly by dehydration), in order to limit the frequency of emptying for the sake of the convenience of the user. Bulky air-entrapping additions to the compost are not encouraged, although these additions will encourage thermophilic composting. Yet, even passive, low-temperature composting will eventually yield a relatively pathogen-free compost after a period of time.

Low-temperature composting toilets include most commercial and many homemade units. According to current scientific evidence, a few months retention time in just about any composting toilet will result in the deaths of nearly all human pathogens (see Chapter 7). The most persistent pathogen seems to be the roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides) and particularly the egg of the roundworm, which is protected by an outer covering which resists chemicals and adverse environmental conditions. Estimates of the survival time of Ascaris eggs in certain soil types under certain conditions are as high as ten years. Although the Ascaris eggs are readily destroyed by thermophilic composting, they may survive in conditions generated by a low-temperature toilet. This is why the compost resulting from such toilets is generally not recommended for garden use if it comes in contact with food crops.

People can become rather obsessive about this issue. One man who published a book on this topic wrote to me to say that a two year retention time in a low-temperature composting toilet is generally considered adequate for the destruction of Ascaris ova (eggs). He indicated that he would never consider using his own low-temperature compost until it had aged at least two years. I asked him if he was infected with roundworms. He said no. I asked him if anyone else was using his toilet. No. I asked him what he was worried about then. Why would he think there could be roundworm eggs in his compost when he knew he didn't have roundworms in the first place? Sometimes common sense is not so common. The potential dangers of humanure can be blown way out of proportion. This is similar to the phobic person who would never go to a movie theater because there may be someone in the theater who has tuberculosis and who may sneeze. Although this is a risk we all take, it's not likely to be a problem.

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

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weblife.org | library | Humanure Handbook | Chapter 6: Fecophobia and the Pathogen