Flushed with Pride*

August 23, 2012

A number of people in the technology world, your scribe included, have been known to make disparaging remarks from time to time about some of Mr. Bill Gates’s business practices and views of technology.  However, I will be the first to commend him for the really constructive way in which he has chosen to use some of his wealth.  The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a charity established by Gates, has taken a leading role in supporting and promoting global health initiatives, notably in the efforts against malaria and AIDS.

The Foundation has now set its sights on a new target: plumbing fixtures.  Specifically, as an article at Wired reports, it has launched a competition to design a new toilet, one that might be suitable for the roughly 40% of the world’s population (about 2.6 billion people) who cannot use our familiar toilet design, because they lack the infrastructure (e.g., water supplies) needed to use them.

The challenge: Create a toilet that doesn’t rely on piped water, sewer, or electrical connections. And while you’re at it, fashion something useful from the waste that goes in. Energy and water might be nice. Do it all for $0.05 per user per day, and you might win a $100,000 prize.

Those of us who live in the US or other wealthy countries will probably have a certain tendency to snicker at a project like this.  I think, though, we would do well to remember that a significant amount of the progress in human health that has been made in the developed world happened as the result of civil engineering.  Even in the 19th century, London, certainly one of the most developed cities in the world at the time, suffered regular cholera epidemics before the completion of a new sewer system following the Great Stink of 1858.

The winning design from this first round of the competition is definitely ingenious.  As a post on the “Babbage” blog at The Economist explains,

The winning toilet, however, is smarter still. It has been developed by Michael Hoffman of the California Institute of Technology, and has earned him the $100,000 first prize. Dr Hoffman’s toilet uses solar panels to power an electrochemical system that produces two things. One is hydrogen. The other is a compound which oxidises the salts in urine to generate chlorine. This creates a mildly disinfecting solution that can be used to flush the toilet. The hydrogen is suitable for cooking or for powering a fuel cell to produce electricity. The solid residue from the process can be employed as fertiliser.

All of this is good stuff.  However, as a post on the “Wired Science” blog at Wired points out, more than technology may be required to change long-ingrained habits.  For very poor people, immediate concerns (where is my next meal coming from?) tend to trump longer-term health benefits.  Once a good technology is developed, there is still a good deal of work to be done to make  it a socially-approved choice.


*The title of this post is also the title of  Wallace Reyburn’s biography of Thomas Crapper, a Victorian era plumber and vendor of plumbing fixtures.  Contrary to popular lore, he did not invent the flush toilet, but did help popularize it.  Thomas Crapper & Co opened the world’s first showroom for plumbing fixtures and “sanitary ware” in the King’s Road in London.



Another Problem with Triclosan?

August 17, 2012

I’ve written here a number of times about some of the potential risks associated with the misuse and overuse of anti-microbial agents.  One such substance is triclosan, an antibacterial agent used in soaps, toothpaste, deodorant, mouthwash, other cosmetic products, and household cleaning supplies.  There have been some suggestions that widespread use of triclosan  may contribute to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria; the chemical is also suspected, based initially on data from animal experiments, of being an endocrine disruptor.

A group of researchers at the University of California, Davis, and the University of Colorado, has now found evidence that triclosan hinders muscle functioning in mice and in fish.

Triclosan, an antibacterial chemical widely used in hand soaps and other personal-care products, hinders muscle contractions at a cellular level, slows swimming in fish and reduces muscular strength in mice, according to researchers at the University of California, Davis, and the University of Colorado. The findings appear online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

(The abstract for the published paper is here.)

The investigators found that the presence of triclosan, at levels that might reasonably be encountered in practice, inhibits muscle contraction by interfering with the action of two proteins that serve to regulate the transport of calcium ions.  The effect was sizable:

Anesthetized mice had up to a 25-percent reduction in heart function measures within 20 minutes of exposure to the chemical.

The mice also exhibited reduced grip strength after exposure to triclosan.  Fathead minnows exposed to triclosan in their environment had reduced swimming ability, compared to a control group.

The growing body of evidence suggesting that triclosan may not be entirely benign is of some concern, because the chemical is so widely used.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1998 estimated that more than 1 million pounds of triclosan are produced annually in the United States, and that the chemical is detectable in waterways and aquatic organisms ranging from algae to fish to dolphins, as well as in human urine, blood and breast milk.

The FDA is currently reviewing the safety status of triclosan, although the results, originally due in April 2011, are still not completed.  Triclosan does have one use for which the FDA has given explicit approval: it is used in some toothpastes to help prevent gingivitis.  Otherwise, the FDA makes this statement on its page Triclosan: What Consumers Should Know:

For other consumer products, FDA has not received evidence that the triclosan provides an extra benefit to health. At this time, the agency does not have evidence that triclosan in antibacterial soaps and body washes provides any benefit over washing with regular soap and water.

Many people seem to be fixated on the idea, imported from cloud-cuckoo land, of getting an entirely microbe-free environment, using not just anti-bacterial soap, but toys and even trash bags.  (Do they intend to autoclave all their rubbish?)  And yet it can be difficult to get some of the same people to wash their hands.

%d bloggers like this: