We’ve been writing about infectious disease and the use of antibiotics off the grid for many years. Now, our upcoming book (tentatively called “Alton’s Antibiotics and Infectious Disease”) will finally put forth a lot of information about specific illnesses and drugs together in one volume (all in plain English).
Of course, antibiotics can save lives otherwise lost to infection, but how about preventing some of those infections in the first place? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and proper sanitation and waste disposal is a huge first step.
Some survival-minded folk have developed bush craft skills that will serve them well in a major disaster. Few, however, have given much thought as to how they will maintain a long-term sanitary environment for their family. This is foolhardy, as many deaths occur daily in underdeveloped countries due to bad water, contaminated food, and poorly-handled human waste.
Most of our readers don’t live in an underdeveloped country, so they might assume that their infrastructure will stay intact even after a disaster; Also, they might continue to count on clean drinking water and safely prepared food. Likewise, they think there will always be ways to easily flush waste from our immediate surroundings so that it goes far, far away to a treatment facility.
When our infrastructure is damaged, however, we become easy prey for infectious disease. You only have to look back a few years to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the subsequent Cholera epidemic there to know this is true.
We’ve discussed problems related to food and water often in the past, so let’s talk about waste. If you can safely dispose of waste, you will have the best chance to stay healthy.
When electrical power is lost for a significant period due to a storm or other disaster, water utilities cannot operate the pumps that maintain water pressure in the pipes of your home. This pressure is one way that utilities ensure that your waste goes to a facility that can eliminate harmful bacteria. Without it, a “boil-water” order is often issued by the authorities.
Harsh lessons learned as a result of disasters have led to the outfitting of waste treatment facilities with generators. Generator power is helpful, but only while you have fuel.
Therefore, we must realize that human sewage will be a big problem not only in the aftermath of a storm but also in a long-term disaster. If the water isn’t running, a community without a ready supply of it will have a nightmare on their hands after as little as three days.
There are various examples of this in the recent past. In the grand majority, people were clueless as to how a flush toilet worked. After filling whatever porcelain options were available, they proceeded to pick rooms where they would relieve themselves and, as a result, their homes were uninhabitable in less than a week. I’m not going to accuse anyone of that plan of action to eliminate human waste. For those who don’t know, however, here’s how a flush toilet (at least one type) actually works:
A flush toilet uses water to send human waste through a drainpipe to another location. The toilet bowl usually has a ring-shaped seat on top, which is covered by the lid when not in use. We’ve become so used to the shape of the seat that even off-grid 5-gallon bucket toilets like the “Luggable Loo” have a seat that goes on the bucket looking like a standard toilet seat.
The water used for flushing a toilet is stored in a tank in back called a “cistern”. Yes, like the cisterns used to collect rain water.
The toilet has an inlet valve that’s in charge of controlling the amount of water going into the tank or cistern. The valve lets water in when the tank is empty, and stops water coming in when the tank is full.
It accomplishes this with something in the tank called a “‘float ball” or other moving floating part. This rises as the tank fills with water. When the tank fills, the ball rises and an apparatus presses against the inlet valve to cover it and turn the water off, preventing overflow. In the meantime, a lid called a “flapper” prevents the water in the tank from draining out until the handle is pressed.
When you press the handle, a lever inside the tank pulls the flapper up, forcing some water through a siphon. This provides suction in the siphon, and the rest of the water follows, emptying the tank. The flapper then drops back into position, allowing the tank to fill up, raising the floater or other apparatus until it’s full again.
Once the water leaves the tank, it goes through a short pipe to the toilet bowl. It sloshes around the rim, down the sides of the bowl, and out through the drainpipe, cleaning the bowl and carrying the waste with it.
Why is there some water left in the bowl after all this? That’s because toilets have a bend in the piping which remains filled with water between flushing. The water in what’s called the “S” bend also stops bad odors from emanating from the drainpipe. During flushing, the ‘S’ bend provides some siphon action as well.
The flush carries waste matter to a drain, which then takes it to a treatment plant or septic tank.
If there are municipal sewer lines, a line known as a “lateral” goes from your home to the sewer main. If the sewer main is down or blocked, however, the act of flushing the toilet will eventually back up sewage into the rest of your plumbing (known as “backflow”). There are backflow prevention valves that can be installed if they are not already there; it’s a good idea to find out if your home has them.
Here’s where some simple planning pays off. If you have access to water, even water unfit to drink, you can have a working toilet by filling the tank with water before flushing or by pouring a couple of gallons directly into the toilet bowl. This will trigger the siphoning action of the plumbing and send your excrement on its way.
Flushing toilet with water
This is all well and good, but what if you have no water to flush a toilet? If you are in your home, empty your toilet as much as possible; then, place two layers of garbage bags (the sturdier the better) inside and lower the lid to hold them in place. Have some sand and bleach solution to pour over the waste for deodorization. If you’re a cat person, you have a head start; you’ve probably stored away some kitty litter to use. Otherwise, consider some of the commercially produced powders that are on the market. After several uses, it will be clear that it’s time to dispose of the waste, which you already have conveniently bagged.
It might be even wiser to move this bodily function outdoors, as our ancestors did. Remember outhouses? Here‘s where a 5 gallon bucket from Home Depot or Lowe’s comes in handy. Line it with the same 2 garbage bags (essential items to store in quantity) and place your toilet seat, a couple of short length 2 x 4s, or even the previously-mentioned Luggable Loo, and you’re good to, um, “go”. Use sand, dirt, kitty litter, or even quicklime along with some bleach solution until the bag is half full or so and dispose.
Many wisely have two buckets, one for solid waste and another for urine. Why? The worst disease-causing organisms are contained in human feces. Urine, although not sterile as some think, is less likely to harbor harmful germs. Also, the volume of urine would be much higher compared to the amount of solid waste (especially where food might be scarce). Some might even find it useful for plants due to the high nitrogen content.
You might still benefit from modern technology in the aftermath of a disaster. If you can afford them, there are self-composting toilets that are manufactured especially for power-down scenarios.
For those on the move, a single hole dug when the need arises will work if covered effectively and some important rules are followed. For the long term, you will want to dig what’s called a trench latrine. A trench latrine is basically just that, a trench dedicated to waste that can be utilized multiple times.
The dimensions of the latrine will depend on the length of time it is needed and the number of people in your group. For a small group, make it 18 inches wide, at least 24 inches deep and at least several feet long. Consider a longer trench and some kind of partition sheet for privacy if your group is big enough to have more than one person utilizing it at a time. Of course, privacy may be the least of your concerns if you’re at the point you have to dig a community latrine.
Keep the dirt left over from digging the trench in a pile next to the latrine with a shovel, and make sure you cover up the waste after each use.
A major concern about any latrine or waste deposited in a hole is contamination of the local water supply. Follow these waste disposal rules diligently:
Don’t place a latrine anywhere near your water source (at least 200 feet away is best)
Disperse single holes over as wide an area as possible (again, at least 200 feet away from water)
Don’t place latrines anywhere near where rainwater runoff occurs
Don’t place latrines near food preparation or eating areas
Avoid digging single use holes where others are likely to step.
Dig holes in raised areas; they will be less likely to cause leaching into water sources
Consider areas in sunlight; which heats up the soil and speeds decomposition
The medic must realize that enforcement of good sanitation is part of the job description. You are the Chief Sanitation Officer; it’s your duty to make sure that you keep conditions in your retreat as healthy as possible. If you haven’t planned for good sanitation, you’re infectious disease may run rampant among your people.
Joe Alton MD
Joe Alton MD
Find out more about sanitation and 150 other medical topics in disaster scenarios with the award-winning Third Edition of the Survival Medicine Handbook! Plus, fill those holes in your medical supplies with Nurse Amy’s entire line of kits and medical supplies at store.doomandbloom.net.