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It is evident that human excrement possesses the capability to transmit various diseases. For this reason, it should also be evident that the composting of humanure is a serious undertaking and should not be done in a frivolous, careless, or haphazard manner. The pathogens that may be present in humanure have various survival periods outside the human body and maintain varied capacities for re-infecting people. This is why the careful management of a thermophilic compost system is important. Nevertheless, there is no proven, natural, low-tech method for destroying human pathogens in organic refuse that is as successful and accessible to the average human as well-managed thermophilic composting.

But what happens when the compost is not well-managed? How dangerous is the undertaking when those involved do not make an effort to ensure that the compost maintains thermophilic temperatures? In fact, this is normally what happens in most owner-built and commercial composting toilets. Thermophilic composting does not occur in owner-built toilets because the people responsible often make no effort to create the organic blend of ingredients and the environment needed for such a microbial response. In the case of most commercial composting toilets, thermophilic composting is not even intended, as the toilets are designed to be dehydrators rather than thermophilic composters.

On several occasions, I have seen simple collection toilet systems (sawdust toilets) in which the compost was simply dumped in an outdoor pile, not in a bin, lacking urine (and thereby moisture), and not layered with the coarse organic material needed for air entrapment. Although these piles of compost did not give off unpleasant odors (most people have enough sense to instinctively cover odorous organic material in a compost pile), they also did not necessarily become thermophilic (their temperatures were never checked). People who are not very concerned about working with and managing their compost are usually willing to let the compost sit for years before use, if they use it at all. Persons who are casual about their composting tend to be those who are comfortable with their own state of health and therefore do not fear their own excrement. As long as they are combining their humanure with a carbonaceous material and letting it compost, thermophilically or not, for at least a year (an additional year of aging is recommended), they are very unlikely to be creating any health problems, despite the rantings of fecophobes. What happens to these casually constructed compost piles? Incredibly, after a couple of years, they turn into quite lovely humus and, if left entirely alone, will simply become covered with vegetation and disappear back into the earth. I have seen it with my own eyes.

A different situation occurs when humanure from a highly pathogenic population is being composted. Such a population would be the residents of a hospital in an underdeveloped country, for example, or any residents in a community where certain diseases or parasites are endemic. In that situation, the composter must make every effort necessary to ensure thermophilic composting, adequate aging time, and total pathogen destruction.

The following information illustrates the various waste treatment methods and composting methods commonly used today and shows the transmission of pathogens through the individual systems.

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 7: Pathogen Transmission Through Various Toilet Systems