Monday, September 24, 2012

The big flush?


According to BBC and other news sources, the city council of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe's second largest city with a population of 1 million, are asking all the residents to simultaneously flush their toilets in order to clean out the pipes.

Zimbabwe has been suffering a severe drought. Residents in the town of Bulawayo have only 72 hours of water a week. Two of the city's five supply dams have dried up, and the situation is unlikely to get much better until a proposed pipeline is built--a project not slated to be completed until 2014.

The prolonged drought has led to sewage building up within the system while residents wait up to three days sometimes to flush. Pipes have already reported to have burst from the dryness and weight of the waste. This flush will help clear all the waste from the system.

Residents are not entirely pleased.  "Our leaders are a joke," says one resident. "What they should be doing is finding money from donors to buy new sewer pipes."

If there is an engineer who can explain how this would work to me, I would appreciate it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Going in tanks and other links

My friends are awesome. They send me links about all kinds of sanitation-relevant things. Unfortunately, I don't have time to write a post about all of them, so here is my mix:

In 2009, a Russian gentleman was granted a patent for disposing of "biological waste" in tanks: go in a specially-design hollow bullet, and shoot it at the enemy. The Guardian writes, "This method of warfare aims to kill the enemy's spirit and psyche."

Meanwhile, over in India, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh says that if the state Uttar Pradesh achieves open defecation free status, he'll believe that Sai Baba, Indian spiritual leader and mystic, is still alive. He openly declares the need for making the bureaucracy easier.

And CNN made a three and a half minute video segment on the problems of open defecation in India. (Does anyone else think that showing pictures of people openly defecating ethically problematic? You wouldn't show a white person going to the bathroom.)

Toto, maker of super toilets, has compiled a list of toilets in the US that have one of their super toilets.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, one of my favorite comics, publishes a comic on self-flushing toilets.


Friday, September 14, 2012

The urinal next to yours: an actual academic study

In one of my favorite parts of the movie French Kiss, the fiancee calls Meg Ryan from Paris to confess that he has found a new love: "I've never felt this way before. Like I could do anything. I could rule the world, climb the highest mountain. I could walk into the men's room and pee, even with some big guy standing behind me." "What?" she gasps in disbelief.

Anxiety about urinating with other people around is a long-standing joking discussion, primarily relegated to comic movies and the internet. (The number of videos, articles, posts, etc. online that come up when you search "urinal rules" is incredible. You can look for them yourself.) If there are three urinals, you are expected to use the one farthest away from another person. (Such rules about the maintenance of personal space extend to other spaces as well, including buses, restaurants, computer labs, etc.) General experience and anecdote, however, is not enough for some researchers.

Googling "urinal rules" gets a whole wealth of these images.

From the vast archives of strange and questionable academic studies, I bring you, "Personal Space Invasions in the Lavatory: Suggestive Evidence for Arousal" by R. Dennis Middlemist, Eric S. Knowles, and Charles F. Matter. (Journal of Perosnality and Social Psychology, 1976, Vol. 33, No. 5, 541-546).

The investigators were interested in why we have such a strong desire for personal space. Their hypothesis was that proximity causes arousal, and that arousal is "interpersonally stressful" and produces "discomfort." ("Arousal," in this context, is not referring to sexual arousal, but more general emotional arousal.) However, these investigators were dissatisfied with the means of measuring arousal in the other studies they read. Heart rate? Skin conductance? Palm sweating? Interesting, but not good enough. Not...close enough for these investigators.

So...urinals. Investigators can invade personal space without deviating too much from the norm. There is little chance for escape. And (as the fiancee in the beginning of this post could attest), anxiety or stress makes it difficult to urinate, delaying the beginning of urination and shortening the duration of the event. Perfect, right?

The investigators begin with the hypothesis that, "If personal space invasions produce arousal, then subjects standing closest to others at lavatory urinals would show increases in the delay of onset of micturation [urination] and decreases in the persistence of micturation.

To observe the behaviors around urinals and proximity, the investigators placed an observer at the sink of the bathroom and had him pretend to groom himself. Using his wristwatch, he would record the time between unzipping the fly and the beginning of urination and the time the 'persistence' of the urination (from start of flow to end). He took note of this by the sound of the urine hitting the bowl.

Of the 48 people they noticed at a US university campus,
--none would pick a urinal next to another person (which I'm sure comes as no surprise to anyone)
--23 were separated by one urinal from the next user
--9 were separated by 3 or more urinals

Interestingly enough, though, there was an average delay of 7.9 seconds of those only one urinal away compared to those who chose farther distances. The urination lasted longer as well, with 19.0 seconds with one space on average, 24.4 seconds with two spaces, and 32.0 seconds with three or more spaces.

This was just their pilot data, to try to see if this was a legitimate means of inquiry. Since they did not randomly assign who was at what distance, their data could show a self-selection bias: maybe those who choose to urinate with only one urinal between them and another person were just more anxious in general, which accounts for the delay in micturation.

In the real experiment, the investigators artificially and randomly would select the personal proximity difference by placing a confederate next to the subject or removing a urinal by placing a "don't use" sign on it. This meant that the two people in the bathroom (confederate and subject) would be forced to be approximately 16-18 inches apart. A user of the urinal was considered a subject if there were no other people present during the urination except for the investigator and confederate. To collect the data of time and persistence of micturation, an observer was stationed in a stall. During the pilot studies, however, they found that the observers had difficulties in precisely hearing the action. How they worked around this--well, I'll let them explain: "The observer used a periscopic prism imbedded in a stack of books lying on the floor of the toilet stall. An 11-inch space between the floor and the wall of the toilet stall provided a view, through the periscope, of the user's lower torso and made possible direct visual sighitngs of the stream of urine."

Yes, the investigators chose to spy on the men at the urinal using a periscope hidden in a stack of books. Apparently it was "ok" because they couldn't see the men's faces. (Incidentally, I came across a reference to this article made in a research methods book as an example of dubious ethics. Before you find yourself afraid of all university bathrooms, the ethics board training that all investigators must complete and the board which they must get all of their work passed by explicitly prohibits observational studies in places where participants expect a degree of privacy--such as a public restroom.)

But they got results. Their results showed an average 6.2 second delay in moderate distance conditions to 8.4 seconds when the confederate stood directly next to the person. This is compared to 4.9 seconds in the control sample. The persistence of the micturation (the time they were actually urinating) also varied noticeably, with a control condition of 23.4 seconds compared to 17.4 seconds in the close distance condition. (Unfortunately, I can't do a more in-depth analysis of their statistical techniques, since I don't have that background.)

Their experiment shows, indeed, that how close you are to the person next to you does affect the delay of onset of urination and the time spent urinating.

I really wonder whether this whole experiment was worth it. Yes, some degree of "arousal" is somewhat inevitable with proximity, but is urination time really somehow better than the other methods they dismissed in measuring emotional arousal? Skin conductance is commonly used in biofeedback machines in counseling centers to measure stress for therapeutic reasons. Can urination delay and persistence be that much better? And more importantly, does this conclusion justify the invasion of privacy that this entailed? Subjects were never informed that they were in fact, in a study. Subjects were put through discomfort in what is an incredibly private place. You could not get a modern ethics board to pass this.

What we can actually get from this study, though, is the degree to which personal space and boundaries become all the more salient in restroom settings. Restrooms which have inadequate boundaries lead to a greater degree of muscle tension, resulting in a decreased time of urination and thus a more incomplete emptying of the bladder. This, subsequently, can lead to an increase in health problems, such as urinary tract infections. It helps point to the idea that boundaries are very important in designing restrooms--adequate space needs to be between urinals and walls on stall need to be low enough to create a comfortable visual barrier.

What I think I'm going to take away from this study the most, though, is the mental image of a guy in a toilet stall looking through a hidden periscope, watching streams of urine, and feverishly writing times down.

Why do I bet that this was probably some poor grad student?

Extra bonus quotes:

"Urinals are open and placed side by side so that, under crowded conditions, men stand shoulder to shoulder, coactively engaging in private elimination."

"The restroom contained two banks of five urinals, which were bowl type rectangles jutting out of the wall and containing about 3 inches (8 cm) of standing water, which the user flushed."

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Running the numbers

I recently underwent TA training for my university, where I had to do a ten minute presentation on whatever I wanted. (Ok, it was supposed to be something that we were going to teach, but I decided to do some shameless promotion of the importance of sanitation instead.) My presentation was on "why shit matters." Someone came up to me afterwards and said, "Thanks for your presentation. I didn't realize how big of a problem it was."

This got me thinking that perhaps not all of the people reading this blog realize how important sanitation is. So let me introduce you to some numbers.

2.5 billion people

Number of people who don't have access to "basic sanitation," defined as being sanitation that is "hygienic" and separates waste. Practically, it means they're openly defecating, using buckets, "flying toilets" (plastic bags they throw out the window), or "dry latrines" (bricks on top of the ground you sit on to defecate).
This is 1/3 of the planet.

1.6 million people

Number of people who die every year from diarrheal diseases, including cholera. These can be prevented through clean water and proper sanitation. 90% of these deaths are children under 5. More people die of diarrhea than typhoid, AIDS, and malaria combined.

146 million people

are threatened by blindness from trachoma.

6 million people

are visually impaired from trachoma.
This is more people than are in the entire metropolitan Washington DC area.

133 million people

are suffering from "intense" intestinal helminths.
This is equivalent to approximately 42% of the population of the United States.
If the health impacts don't motivate you, here are some of the economic impacts of sanitation on various countries' GDP's:
India: 6.4%
Cambodia: 7.3%
Benin: 1.5%
Is this really acceptable?