A Day for Crap

—by Debra Shore, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner

Today more people than usual will be talking about crap. It’s November 19: World Toilet Day. (You didn’t think I’d forget, did you?)

In fact, in her engaging and excellent TED talk, British author Rose George urges all of us to speak about the unspeakable, talk about toilets, and consider sewage. George wrote a wonderful history of sanitation called The Big Necessity, and she has made it her mission to talk [crap] (her words, not mine).


Human waste can be the carrier for more than 50 communicable diseases and diarrhea is the second biggest killer of children around the world. Pneumonia is the first and together pneumonia and diarrhea account for two million deaths of children under five every year. All because they lack access to basic sanitation, namely clean toilets and safe drinking water.

Indeed, according to George, the flush toilet and piped water were voted the most significant medical advance in the last 200 years by readers of the British Medical Journal, surpassing in importance the birth control pill, anesthesia, and surgery.

World Toilet Day was launched in 2001 to challenge the taboo around toilets and draw attention to the global sanitation challenge. Because while those of us fortunate enough to live where we are served by excellent sewage treatment and water filtration utilities, 2.5 billion people in the world—that’s one out of every three people on the planet—do not even have access to a toilet.

Yet here, in Cook County, Illinois, we take precious fresh water from Lake Michigan, filter it, purify it, and pump it to our homes and businesses where it sits in a wheelbarrow called a toilet waiting to convey our waste to a sewage treatment plant. We use fresh, drinking water to transport our waste—how smart is that?! And because our water and wastewater treatment systems are so dependable, we rarely have to think about turning on a tap and having no water emerge, or worry about diseases like typhoid and cholera.

Here’s my suggestion for World Toilet Day. First, be thankful, incredibly grateful, for the engineers and treatment plant operators and pipefitters and all the others who work everyday to ensure that we have fresh water to drink and proper sanitation. Second, spend a few minutes watching Rose George’s TED talk—“Let’s Talk Crap. Seriously”—or visit the World Toilet Day website and learn a bit more about that wonder of our modern world, the toilet.

“[The flush toilet is] a wonderful waste disposal device,” says George. “But I think that it’s so good—it doesn’t smell, we can put it in our house, we can lock it behind a door—and I think we’ve locked it out of conversation too.” Today, at least, you can talk about it.

For more thoughts and intel on clean water issues, visit Debra Shore’s website.