Lavatory Laboratory

Our humble toilet has shaped civilization. Starting in 19th-century Britain, it spread throughout the industrialized world, eliminated recurring cholera epidemics, and contributed to the doubling of lifespans. But its spread was not universal. Dozens of countries could not afford to build the sewer system that toilets rely on, leaving a present-day 2.5 billion people subject to preventable plagues considered history in the industrialized world. Every year, this sewage shortcoming translates into the deaths of about 1.5 million children under 5 from diarrheal diseases. Annually, 100,000 people die from cholera.

Efforts to invest in sewer systems have stalled in several low-income nations, and now there is a growing sentiment that the answer to today’s sanitation dilemmas should not rely on today’s toilets anyway. Like mobile phones that have bypassed the need for a cabled telephone infrastructure, some engineers, designers, and humanitarian workers argue not for better sewage systems, but for smarter toilets. The future toilet, they say, must be self-contained.

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