Roman Toilets Spread Parasites
Roman latrines like this one from Lepcis Magna in Libya, did not prevent the spread of parasites..
It is perhaps not polite, in certain circles, to talk about toilets. But nevertheless they represent an area of technology that we all encounter daily. While the basics of the commode haven't changed much in recent decades, innovators are constantly chipping away at porcelain tradition, bringing high technology to bear. And in developing countries, toilets are no laughing matter. Basic sanitation continues to be an urgent public health issue in much of the world. So squeamishness be damned! We take a look at some toilet tech from around the globe.
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University of Huddersfield
Designers Elliott Whiteley and Gareth Humphreys came up with theIota folding toilet
concept while studying Product Design at The University of Huddersfield in England. The toilets folds itself up to flush and stays folded when not in use, conserving water and space.
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Fresh Air Plus
It's hard to argue with this idea. TheFresh Air Plus
toilet seat, installed atop your regular toilet, uses a built-in fan to whisk away air and odors before they ever leave the bowl proper. The trick? A ventilation tube that shuttles the air out of the toilet, through the wall, and ideally out of the house entirely. Don't tell the neighbors.
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Plumbing manufacturer Kohler has similar ideas in mind with itsPurefresh toilet seat
, which debuted last year. The Purefresh seat also uses a fan system, but replaces the ventilation tube with a battery-powered carbon filter and scent pack system to deodorize air. Among your scent pack options: Garden Waterfall, Soft and Fresh Laundry, and something called Avacado Spa. You also get an LED light for nighttime excursions.
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Anyone who has ever cleaned a bathroom knows that toilets really are designed for sitting. Males, quite frankly, mess up the whole system when they stand and aim. TheMain Drain
attempts to solve the problem by attaching an adjustable urinal to the side of your toilet. The receiving unit is designed to reduce splashing, and the articulated arm swings the entire unit out of the way when it's time to, you know, sit.
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Blue Diversion Toilet
For much of the developing world, toilet technology is no joke. In 2012, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sponsored a design contest calledThe Reinvent the Toilet Challenge
, in an effort to improve sanitary conditions for those living without plumbing or electricity. Among the submitted designs, theBlue Diversion
toilet can be fitted over existing pit latrines and uses solar-powered pumps and filters to isolate waste while recycling flush water.
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California Institute of Technology
The grand prize winner at the 2012 design event went to Caltech's solar-poweredelectrochemical waste treatment system
, which actually breaks down waste into fertilizer and hydrogen gas that can be stored in fuel cells. The Caltech team -- headed up by engineer Michael Hoffman -- is currently developing the system with industry partners.
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University of Colorado Boulder
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has since expanded its program, holding design fairs in India and China. Solar power is, naturally, the go-to energy source for off-the-grid toilet solutions. Thissolar-thermal toilet
from the University of Colorado Boulder uses parabolic mirrors and fiber optics to superheat waste into biochar, an organic material than can be burned like charcoal.
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Maya-Anaïs Yataghène / Flickr
Clearly, toilet technology remains an important area of research for very practical public health reasons. On the other hand, this is the 21st century, so we have to worry about weirdness, too. For instance, so-called "enhanced toilets" -- with bidet, fragrance and even music functions -- are very popular in Japan and often wired into smart home networks. As such they're technically vulnerable to, yes, hacking. Security company Trustwave recentlyissued an advisory
on the Bluetooth-enabled Satis brand toilet: "Attackers could cause the unit to unexpectedly open/close the lid, activate bidet or air-dry functions, causing discomfort or distress to user." So, heads up on that.
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Public baths, latrines with washing facilities, sewer systems, fountains and clean drinking water from aqueducts did not protect the ancient Romans from parasites, finds new research.
Published in the journal Parasitology, the study used archaeological evidence from cesspits, sewer drains, rubbish pits, burials and other sites to assess the impact of Romanization across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Piers Mitchell from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology of the University of Cambridge, UK, reviewed and compared the evidence for parasites before, during and after the Romans.
Surprisingly, analysis of ancient latrines, human burials and coprolites, or fossilized feces, showed that intestinal parasites did not decrease as expected in Roman times compared with the preceding Iron Age. Actually, they gradually increased.
“The impressive sanitation technologies introduced by the Romans did not seem to have delivered the health benefits that we would expect,” Mitchell told Discovery News.
He found that the most widely spread intestinal parasites in the Roman Empire were whipworm (Trichuris trichiura) and roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides) which are transmitted by the contamination of food with feces.
“It could have been spread by the use of unwashed hands to prepare food or by the use of human feces as crop fertilizer,” Mitchell wrote.
Also widespread was Entamoeba histolytica, a protozoan that causes dysentery, with bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain and fevers. It is contracted by drinking water contaminated by human feces.
Ectoparasites such as lice and fleas were as common among Romans as in Viking and medieval populations, where bathing was not widely practiced.
The finding is surprising since the Romans are known for their regular bathing and for building latrines provided with flushing systems. They took care of their personal hygiene with a sponge on a stick and hand washing.
“I would not say that these technologies were useless. Public latrines would be been convenient in town while public baths would have made people cleaner and smell better,” Mitchell said.
“It is just that they do not have appeared to improve health in the way we might expect and we must ask ourselves why,” he added.
One possible explanation might lie in regulations which ensured human waste was cleared from the streets and taken out of towns to the countryside.
“This human and animal feces was often used to fertilize crops, thus leading to reinfection of the population with intestinal parasites when they ate this food,” Mitchell said.
Indeed, unless the feces are composted for many months before being added to the fields, they can spread parasite eggs to the plants grown.
Moreover, not all Roman baths were clean. Water was often changed intermittently, and a scum would build on the surface from human dirt and cosmetics.
The study also found fish tapeworm eggs surprisingly widespread in the Roman empire, in contrast to the evidence from the Bronze and Iron Age.
The Roman love for the fermented fish sauce known as garum may provide an explanation.
Traded across the empire, garum was made from pieces of fish, herbs, salt and flavorings. The sauce was not cooked, but allowed to ferment in the sun.
“Fish tapeworm eggs could have been transported large distances across the empire in the garum sauce and then consumed,” Mitchell said.
Roman doctors such as Galen (130-210 A.D.), a physician to the Roman emperors Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and Septimus Severus, were well aware of intestinal worms.
Galen believed the parasites were formed spontaneously from putrefied matter under the effect of heat.
The treatment consisted in dietary modification, bloodletting and medicines that were believed to have a cooling and drying effect.
As for ectoparasites such as lice, the treatment consisted of special combs which were used to strip the parasite from hair.
“Delousing may have been a daily routine for many people living across the Roman Empire,” Mitchell said.