George describes Japanese toilets that precisely clean your backside as you finish; her impressions of going into London and New York sewers; stories of the need for public latrines in China, India, the U. S., and Britain; and the fact that 2.6 billion of the world’s people have no access to adequate sanitation, which causes widespread sickness and death. And she spends a chapter on the U. S. biosolids debate...
This book is worth reading. Its focus is toilets and the need for more attention to sanitation in developing countries. Its author, Rose George, is a journalist who has worked at The Nation, COLORS, and Condé Nast Traveler and, as a freelance writer, has been published in The Guardian and other periodicals.
The book’s title, The Big Necessity, comes from how one person she met refers to a place to defecate. Rose traveled the world to learn about such places in diverse countries. She describes Japanese toilets that precisely clean your backside as you finish, her impressions of going into London and New York sewers, and the fact that 2.6 billion of the world’s people have no access to adequate sanitation, which causes widespread sickness and death.
One chapter is titled “The Battle of Biosolids: Bad Smell, Big Tomatoes.” George is clearly a skeptic regarding biosolids use, and shows some lack of knowledge, even as she clearly describes the conflicts: “When sewage is cleaned and treated, the dirt that is collected and removed is called sludge, except in the United States, where it’s called biosolids by some people and poison by others.” In this chapter, as in the rest of the book, she did her homework. She describes her visits to the Alexandria wastewater treatment facility and the DC Water and Sewer Authority’s Blue Plains facility. She notes the professionalism and pride of those managing biosolids. She sympathetically describes the difficulties presented by odors. But she spends far more time and sympathy on the arguments of concerned citizen Nancy Holt in North Carolina regarding health concerns. Her skepticism is at a maximum when she describes the process by which the term “biosolids” was coined. She quotes Ellen Harrison of Cornell Waste Management Institute and Maureen Reilly of SludgeWatch. She ends up using innuendo and sarcasm to impune biosolids recycling to soils. Although she also talked with former EPA official Alan Rubin and spent considerable time with Chris Peot, biosolids manager at Blue Plains, she presented their arguments briefly. And while she mentions some scientists raising concerns about biosolids use, she ignores a large volume of research and scores of accessible scientists who find the practice acceptable.
But it’s worth reading George’s assessment of biosolids management, because she is a pretty good journalist and her take on the topic is instructive: biosolids recycling to soils is counterintuitive, difficult to understand, and easy to be skeptical about. Interestingly, in an interview with New Hampshire Public Radio on November 12th, George said that she does not know enough about biosolids to be able to say whether or not use on soils is a reasonable practice. In the book she asks: “Are biosolids safe?” and she quotes Ellen Harrison saying “There is no such thing as ‘safe.’ Is it safe to drive your car? Nearly all that we do entails risk, so the question really is, ‘Is the risk acceptable.’”
In a special to the Los Angeles Times, Anna Sklar, author of Brown Acres: An Intimate History of the Los Angeles Sewer System notes in a review of the book, that “despite her extensive research, George is on weak ground when she critiques the use of treated sewage sludge, also known as biosolids.” (Sklar’s review is available at http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-book20-2008oct20,0,2965209.story.)
Another review of The Big Necessity comes from Laura Orlando of the Resource Institute for Low Entropy Systems, a critic of centralized wastewater treatment and a vocal opponent of biosolids use on soils in the U. S.: “George is an unapologetic fan of sewers. She calls them ‘unassailable as the default option of how to dispose of human excreta in sophisticated, wealthy places.’ This is a mistake. Sewers look good on World Bank loan portfolios and the income statements of the companies that build them. But from the point of view of long-term, sustainable public and environmental health, they are a disaster.... It is true that deaths from typhoid and cholera — the great waterborne killers of the 19th centuries’ open sewers — were greatly reduced with the combined use of closed pipe sewers and drinking water treatment. But a greater and more complex group of killers is now in the sewage or result from sewage treatment itself. And this is a threat that George gives short shift.”
Orlando is wrong. Her suggestion that somehow modern “sewage or result from sewage treatment itself” is a greater killer than open sewers and lack of sanitation is absurd and flies in the face of abundant evidence.
In contrast to such diatribes, George’s work is a piece of thoughtful journalism that includes a lot of good, well-documented evidence. Rose George’s voice is a moderate one, and The Big Necessity is right that sanitation “matters.” Fortunately, George and her book are garnering considerable attention, which the topic deserves.