How The Toilet Changed History

[PBSDS BUMPER] The average person gets rid of approximately 130 grams of poop every day. Maybe twice that much if they’ve had Taco
Bell. Seven and a half billion of us on Earth? That’s a literal mountain of human poop
every day. Yet most of *us* get to pretend it doesn’t
exist, all thanks to an invention that has improved health and quality of life more than
any other in humanity’s history. [OPEN BUMPER] Bears do it in the woods, whales do it in the ocean, and 2.4 *billion* of us DON’T
do it in a toilet. Dysentery, typhoid, parasites, and other infections
lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year, all because one in three people alive
in 2017 don’t have access to toilets and latrines. From on top of our porcelain thrones, we’ve
left a lot of our species drowning in feces. Nearly a *billion* people still defecate out
in the open: in street gutters, open water, or… in the woods. Thousands of years ago, we all did it that
way, but as we developed agriculture and settled into towns, poop started piling up. Around five thousand years ago, Neolithic
villagers constructed the first known toilets at Skara Brae. At the same time, many houses in Mohenjo Daro,
featured toilets complete with drains, people washed their poop into sewers that emptied
into the Indus River. It’d be thousands of years before we linked
germs to disease, but avoiding filth has deep evolutionary roots. Bodily excretions, death, and rotten smells
can be signs of danger or disease, triggering our innate sense of disgust. This biological instinct ended up in the moral
codes of many religions, like this passage from the Old Testament instructing the Hebrews
to do their Exodus in a… hole-y fashion. Roman society was comfortable with caca. At one point, Rome had 144 public toilets…
long open benches that emptied into the Cloaca Maxima, a sewer system that carried waste
to the Tiber river. But the vast majority of Romans simply pooped
in a pot and threw it into the street. As waste and disease piled up, Romans pointed
to the stink as the cause of sickness. After the Roman Empire faded away, this connection
between bad air and bad health persisted, clogging up toilet innovation for more than
a thousand years. During medieval outbreaks like the Plague,
doctors wore pointed masks, filled with strong herbs or perfumes to “cleanse” bad air,
which they believed to be the cause of disease. They were wrong, but this obsession with stink
would change the world in ways no one saw coming. Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Crapper
didn’t invent the flush toilet. That honor goes to John Harington, his “Ajax”
device emptied the bowl with water from an overhead tank. But flush toilets didn’t catch on until
1775, when Alexander Cummings revolutionized the way we poo by adding a water-filled “S
trap” to block explosive, and supposedly disease-causing sewer gas from rising up the
pipes, the same basic toilet design we still use today. During the Industrial Revolution, most people’s
business still ended up in streets and cesspools, and the growing population was too big a load
for London’s sewers. By the mid-1800s, the city was literally overflowing
with crap. With crap comes cholera, an infection from
bacteria whose toxins basically cause all the water in your body to pour out of your
butt in the form of diarrhea, death by dehydration. Cholera hit London in 1854. Instead of the “old bad air” theory, a
doctor named John Snow believed cholera was transmitted by drinking water tainted with
sewage. Snow’s map of cholera cases clustered around
a water pump. When he when he removed the pump’s handle,
new cholera cases fell. Soon after, London enclosed its sewers and
diverted waste downstream of London, but doctors wouldn’t totally accept Snow’s ideas for
nearly 50 years. The Great Depression saw an expansion of sewage
treatment plants–and modern toilet paper!–and this is basically the sanitation system we
have today, where magical chairs make nasty things disappear, out of sight, out of smell,
and out of mind. It’s no three sea shells but we’ve come a long way. …and this privileged pooping existence lets
us keep something else out of mind: The 2.4 BILLION people who still don’t have toilets. Nearly 800,000 children under 5 still die
every year from diarrhea. More than AIDS, more than malaria. That’s an Airbus A380 full of children crashing
every 6 hours. It’s estimated last year poor sanitation
cost the global economy $260 billion, due to illness, loss of income, and years of life
lost. Worse, women suffer these impacts disproportionately
to men. In 2007, readers of the BMJ voted “modern
sanitation” as the #1 medical advance since 1840. Not antibiotics, not vaccines. Toilets and clean water. We *have* made progress. Since 1990, 14% more people have access to
sanitation, and *many* fewer are dying, but fewer is not zero. With a little effort, we can *wipe* this problem
from the Earth. On the TV show “The Brady Bunch”, their
bathroom didn’t even have a toilet. Pooping is so taboo, it was *literally* invisible. We can’t even talk about it! It’s no coincidence that many of our worst
swear words involve defecation. In her book The Big Necessity, Rose George
writes: “How a society disposes of its human excrement is an indication of how it treats
its humans too” Everybody poops, and every person who is born
should be able to do it safely. Stay curious! And please… always wash your hands when you’re done. Hey everyone, as always, thank you for watching
and learning with us. This week’s video was a stinky but important
subject, and it was brought to you thanks to the support of Bill and Melinda Gates. For years, Bill and Melinda Gates have supported
efforts around the world to make people healthier and make their lives better through innovation,
education, and investing in projects to build a better future. And it’s working! Since 1990, an estimated **122 million** children’s
lives have been saved, thanks to things like better nutrition, family planning, economic
opportunities, and vaccines. Here’s some proof: In 1988 there were more
than 350,000 cases of polio. And last year? Only 34. Things have gotten a LOT better, and one day
soon, that number *can be, and will be zero*. But whether it’s bringing toilets to 2.4
billion people, or erasing the last few cases of polio, progress only happens when the privileged
pay attention. Go to to read Bill and Melinda
Gates’ Annual Letter, and find out all the ways life has and will continue to improve
for the world’s poorest I’ll see you next time.

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