WORMS AND DISEASE
"A well-made compost heap steams like a tea kettle and gets hot enough to destroy all pathogens that may be present when one uses human sewage. An extraordinary device when one thinks about it. Thermophilic bacteria. Bacteria that can live and flourish in temperatures hot enough to cook an egg. How can they survive in such heat? Truly the tricks of nature are extraordinary!"
Robert S. deRopp
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!" she cried.
"Worms and disease!"
Of course. What else would a fecophobe think of when one mentions using humanure as a fertilizer?
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 shit. When this "fact" dawned upon them, it seemed to set off some kind of instinctive alarm in their minds, possibly inherited directly from Queen Victoria. "We don't want to eat shit!" they informed me (that's an exact quote), as if in preparing dinner I was simply defecating on plates and setting them on the table. Never mind that the food was delicious. It was the thought of it that mattered.
Fecophobia is alive and well and currently afflicting about a billion westerners. 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; 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 human waste." 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 20 years of humanure composting experience (no need to go to the bother of segregating urine; a 30 gallon container is way too big and heavy to be able to easily handle; and sawmill sawdust does, in fact, work beautifully in a composting toilet. These issues will be thoroughly 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. I had to read between the lines of the book to find an explanation.
It seems that the author was somehow associated with the "Bio-Dynamic" agricultural movement, founded by Dr. Rudolf Steiner. 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 as it were on intuition rather than on experience or science. He insisted that humanure must only be used to fertilize soil used 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 severely fecophobic, and that fecophobia has, unfortunately, rubbed off on some of his followers. It is unfortunate that sensational, fear-motivated warnings regarding humanure recycling continue to be published.
But, it's nothing new, and it has historically been based upon ignorance, which is a widespread problem. At one time, for example, 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 US 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 US Department of Agriculture bulletin made the risks crystal clear: "Any spitoon, 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 utensils 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 persons were attacked by the disease and 114 died."
The 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.5
This degree of fecophobia, fostered and spread by authoritative government publications and by spiritual leaders 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
Source: The Humanure Handbook. Jenkins Publishing, PO Box 607, Grove City, PA 16127. To order, phone: 1-800-639-4099.