Bodily waste is common to all and as natural as breathing. We prefer not to talk about it, but we shouldeven those of us who take care of our business in pristine, sanitary conditions. Disease spread by bodily waste kills more people worldwide every year than any other single cause of death. Even in the United States, nearly two million people have no access to an indoor toilet, while the sewers of major cities worldwide are an infrastructure disaster waiting to happen. With razor-sharp wit and crusading urgency, mixing levity with gravity, Rose George's The Big Necessity breaks the silence, turning the taboo subject into a cause with the most serious of consequences.
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The Big Necessity
The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why it Matters
By Rose George
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2008 Rose George
All rights reserved.
IN THE SEWERS
THE ART OF DRAINAGE
Beside a manhole in an East London street, a man named Happy hands over the things that will protect me in the hours to come: white paper overalls, with hood. Crotch-high waders with tungsten-studded soles that will grip but won't spark. A hard hat with a miner's light. Heavy rubber gloves, oversized. A "turtle" — a curved metal box containing an emergency breathing apparatus — to strap around my waist, along with a backup battery. Finally, a safety harness that Happy helps me buckle with delicacy, as it loops through my legs near my groin. It's tight but comfortable, and has the side benefit for male wearers of making all men seem rather well endowed. The harness will be the only means of dragging me out from the sewer into which I am about to descend, where the hazards include bacteria and viruses such as hepatitis A, B, and C; rabies and typhoid; and leptospirosis ("sewer workers' disease") that can be caught from rat urine, and in its severe form causes vomiting, jaundice, and death.
There are also the gases. Methane, obviously. Hydrogen sulphide, known as sewer gas, which forms when organic matter decomposes in sewage, smells like rotten eggs and kills by asphyxiation. And whatever fumes arise from whichever effluents London's commercial businesses choose to pour down their drains and toilets today, with proper warning or not. The greatest danger is the flow, which can be increased suddenly and rapidly with rainfall, so a stream becomes a torrent, and one that can contain anything that has been put down it that day, from two-by-fours to pieces of four-by-fours. Sewer workers have always died on the job, and they still die, no matter how advanced the infrastructure. In March 2006, Minnesota sewer workers Joe Harlow and Dave Yasis drowned in the St. Paul sewer system when a rainstorm came on suddenly.
Water can be dangerous in other ways: sugar manufacturers, for example, send into the sewer the boiling water that they clean their vats with. Underground, it turns into steam and can react unhappily with other gases in the system. Sewers that are known to be particularly hazardous are ranked C-class and cannot be entered without special permits. Though the men accompanying me have worked in the sewers for decades, they cannot know every inch of a vast network nor what is likely to be discharged into it. Some sewers haven't been visited in fifteen years. It's best to be prepared. And indemnified: a paper-suited man thrusts a form at me as I struggle with my crotch-high waders (items of clothing that would make members of the online Yahoo! sewer-boots fetish group — which does exist — speechless with one emotion or another). He says, "Sign this," and gives me no time to read it. "Don't worry," he says, with no smile. "It just means if you collapse, I get all your money." This humor helps in a hard job, and there will be more of it.
Half a dozen men stand around the manhole. They match well enough the London journalist Henry Mayhew's description of their predecessors in 1851: "Well-conducted men generally, and for the most part, fine stalwart good-looking specimens of the English laborer," though the size of their paunches shows that they've moved on from the traditional sewerman's tipple of rum to beer. They all seem to have very white teeth.
My escorts include one consultant, one senior engineer, and several wastewater operatives. Their names are Dave and Keith and Rob and Happy, but in the language of those who work in the city's sewers, they're all flushers. The name is no longer used officially, because it describes the job in times past when men waded into the silt of a sewer and dislodged blockages with brooms and rakes, and opened inlets to flush river water into the tunnels to nudge the flow down into the Thames. They're wastewater operatives now, but they do what the flushers did: they keep the flow flowing.
Their equipment is better than the heavy blue overcoats and wick lamps that flushers used a century ago, but the men are fewer. If you look at the sewer systems of great cities, you'll start to think there's something wrong with the math. New York's 6,000 miles of sewers are served by 300 flushers. Paris has 1,500 miles and 284 égoutiers. The mightiest network of any metropolitan city is London's. It is so mighty, no one knows how big it is. Thames Water, the private water utility that serves London, has 37,000 miles of sewers in its whole catchment, but that extends 80 miles from central London to Swindon. As for the length of the sewers under the metropolis, there was no precise answer to be had, beyond "a lot." The number of flushers is a less slippery figure. At the time of my visit, it was 39. Thames Water claims more efficient equipment has reduced manpower needs. The flushers see it differently, muttering about outside contractors doing the job that only they know how to do best, and about asset-stripping in the boardroom. There were personnel cuts after the UK's water companies were privatized in 1989, and Thames Water is now on its third owner in nineteen years. Debates rage still about the wisdom of privatizing companies responsible for providing, in many eyes, an essential public good that costs money to clean and supply.
All the flushers know is that they're heading toward retirement, that the sewer knowledge they carry in their heads is irreplaceable (and unwritten), and that they could use some more staff, though only men like themselves. Sewers have always been a man's world. In London, they're a white, working-class man's world. There are few jobs left that are as monochrome and monosexual. There are female engineers who do sewer surveys, sometimes. But no one can remember a woman applying to be a flusher. Even black London cab drivers — who share the banter, skin color, and accents of the flushers — have reluctantly welcomed some women. But flushers are not cab drivers, and they've chosen, over the mapped roads above, these mostly unmapped and significantly more dangerous conduits, thoroughfares, and bypasses below.
The boundaries of this world are trunk sewers and brick, but they're also the exclusivity of a marginalized occupation. In a scene from Boys from the Brown Stuff, a BBC documentary on flusher life, a new flusher tries to chat up a young woman outside a nightclub. He makes the mistake of telling her what his job is. The scene looks set up but her disgust is genuine. "Does it involve feces and such? I'm glad I didn't get you to buy me a drink, then."
It's 10 P.M. now. Night is a good time to enter sewers, when businesses — which contribute the biggest volume of waste — have closed. Night is when dangerous sewers are as safe as they can be. This first sewer is safer still, because the flow has been diverted to allow us access. It would be only a meter or so high normally because the Fleet sewer, formed when the filthy River Fleet was enclosed with brick, isn't one of the bigger ones. Some tunnels are several meters in diameter and wide enough to drive a Mini Cooper through. Some are barrel-shaped, some shaped like Wild West wagon canopies. The Fleet is a brick egg. (Elliptical shapes are strong and encourage the flow of water.)
In the Fleet, we are to hunt for leaks. Water systems always leak. In 2006, Thames Water lost 915 million liters of clean water from its drinking-water pipes, an amount that a City of London inquiry called "staggering." The job tonight is to see whether water is leaking into the sewers from drinking water pipes nearby. Rob Smith is my guide. He's a tall, powerful-looking man, not far from retirement, who spent twenty years building tunnels before moving into sewers. Both his chosen occupations probably explain his decision to live on the coast while working in London, a commute of a few hours a day. He likes fresh air.
Smith is now a senior engineer, a few rungs on the wastewater ladder above a flusher, and he doesn't need to go into the sewers anymore. But, he says, "I can't be responsible for the safety of my men without knowing the environment." So down he goes, regularly enough, sometimes with a journalist or prince in tow. Thames Water runs open days at its Abbey Mills pumping station where visitors are served sandwiches and tea then led into the trunk sewer below. (It is considered sensible to serve food before seeing the sewers, not the other way around.) Smith has seen all sorts. "Prince Charles came once, down the sewers. We've had lords and ladies. They're all the same once they get down there. If anything happens and someone needs to be pulled out, nobody gets priority. A sewer is a great leveler."
Smith enters first, nimble and fast down the ladder. I romantically assume he's gone before me because his nose can sense danger. But he has lost much of his sense of smell from hydrogen sulphide exposure. This is annoying above ground but potentially lethal beneath it. Smith's fatigued nose will be backed up by his turtle.
My best defense is a big, long rope that links my harness to a hoist above. A line of life. I'm glad of it, being so weighed down with turtle and tungsten that a stride over to the manhole takes twice the effort. I follow instructions: sit on the pavement. Swing legs over to the ladder. Grip the manhole cover for purchase. Go down, as slowly as possible. Really, really slowly. "Take your time!" the flushers shout down, because I am precious cargo. "No one gets killed in my sewers," Smith says. "Not in, under, or above them. It causes a hell of a lot of paperwork."
The ladder is rusty and damp. The rungs are far apart. I'm apprehensive, waiting to be hit by a stink, but nothing comes. "That's what people do," says Smith. "They get down, take a sniff, say, 'Is that poo?' I say yes. They say, 'It doesn't smell much, does it?' They think that because when they go to the toilet, it smells, that this will, too. They think it'll smell like three million toilets." This is not a bad odor. It's musty, cloying, and damp, but it doesn't stink. It's diluted, after all. Without water, the average human produces 77 pounds of excrement and 132 gallons of urine a year. Add toilet flushes, and the total jumps to 4,000 gallons. Thanks to the WC, the flow is 98 percent water.
Down below, I am unhooked. My safety now depends on the monotonous beeps of the turtle, which signal safe air, and on the men in front and behind me. They set off with the walk of the flusher and I do my best to copy. The sewerman does not walk like an ordinary man. Lifting the feet, as a normal gait requires, risks kicking up the flow and splashing foul water on yourself or your workmate. For this reason, and to get better purchase on slimy brick, it's better to glide. Feet close together, buttocks clenched (as tightly as the lips, which are best kept pursed to defend against splashes), smallish steps. It's mincing that manages to be macho. I try to glide satisfactorily while I take in the sights. There are bricks, shadows, and light. There is a surprising amount of beauty, which explains why sewers have their obsessive fans, and why they are so beloved of filmmakers. What lighting director wouldn't want to rise to the task of shadowing a Harry Lime in black, white, and gray menace?
The men have their eyes cast upward, looking for the incursion of leaked water. Mine look the other way, into the stream. I am nervous about what I might see and curious about what I might recognize. There's a floating bloated tampon. There goes part of a polystyrene cup. I find myself peering for brown solids, alert and excited, like a kid with a fishing rod. In olden days, sewers had hunters called "toshers." They moved into the sewers from the banks of the river, in search of discarded riches. Sometimes they found gold; sometimes they lost their lives. There are still sewer hunters today, and there is cause: the flushers find all sorts of things in the flow. Bits of motorbikes (easily shoved down a two-foot-wide manhole), baby strollers, goldfish. Coins, sometimes, and jewelry. Cell phones by the hundred (one recent survey concluded that 850,000 handsets a year are inadvertently flushed down British toilets). That's all due to haplessness, but there's also ignorance. Wastewater utilities have had a long-running "Bag It and Bin It" campaign to educate people into what they shouldn't flush. The list includes condoms, tampons and applicators, sanitary towels, panty liners and backing strips, facial and cleaning wipes, diapers, incontinence pads, old bandages, razor blades, syringes and needles, colostomy bags, medicine, toilet roll tubes, and pantyhose. Bras are also unwanted: in June 2007, a lingerie set flushed down a toilet clogged sewers in County Durham, collapsed a road, and caused £15,000 in repairs. "Throwaway society," says Smith. "My goldfish has died? Throw it down the toilet. My hand grenade doesn't work? Throw it down the toilet."
Hand grenade? It belongs in Smith's best sewer anecdote, which he has told before and will tell again. He was working with a gang in the mid-level sewer near Greenwich when a flusher handed something to him. It was filth-encrusted but then he made out its shape through the muck. "I thought, 'Oh shit.'" He couldn't see if the grenade was live, but if it had been, it could have blasted a hole up to the sewer above. The gang would either be blown up or drown, or both. Smith climbed up the ladder one-handed, having warned the lads above, who disappeared. He lobbed it down an embankment and hoped for the best. "The next day," he says, "a policeman phoned to ask me why I'd done that. I said, 'I didn't have a choice.' I asked him if it had been live, and he said, 'You don't want to know,' so I presume it was."
I love sewer anecdotes as much as the men like telling them. The stories are rich and funny, with a spirit mined from working at extremely close quarters — flushers have to pull and push each other in tight spots, in splendidly intimate isolation — in a job that gets only mockery and disregard from the public. The jokes are revenge. The writer Sukhdev Sandhu met a flusher who "remembers the night he emerged from a sewer at Leicester Square dripping of filth and shit only to find a young woman tourist peering at him. He held out his hand. 'Smell that. That's Canal No. 5, that is.'"
Humor helps because the work is hard. The pay isn't great, there are shampoo bills, and then there are the daily grievances, like Q-tips. "They are the bane of our lives," says Smith. "If someone had searched for something that could clean your ear and also stick perfectly in the six-millimeter holes of a sieve [filter], they couldn't have done better." He shines his light on a pipe mouth to one side, encased with something I can't recognize, dripped solid like stalactites. "Concrete. Unbelievable. Someone's just poured liquid concrete down a drain." The liquid has now hardened, embracing and defeating the black pipe it arrived down, a sign of shortsighted selfishness.
The men stop to shine light at roof bricks, searching for cracks. While they look at the bricks with a purpose, I just look at the bricks. Smith is proud of them. "If you had a garden brick wall," he says, "think of the condition it would be in after fifty years. These are over one hundred years old, and they have sewage flowing through them constantly." He gives them his considered engineer's opinion. They are "in pretty good nick."
A century in age makes this sewer relatively young. The core of London's sewer network was built between 1858 and 1866 by a man whose name is now venerated only among flushers and historians, though he was probably the greatest of the famed Victorian engineers, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, bridge builder, or the locomotive-designing Stephensons. The man who built London's sewers, though, is as obscure as the network he constructed.
Since its beginnings as a trading center on a useful river, London dealt with its excrement as other settlements did, with what is known today as "on-site sanitation." In short, this meant that its citizens generally did their business in a designated, confined place. It was a private matter unregulated by any authority and done mostly in a privy, from the French word privé (private). Privies were used alongside cesspools and middens (dungheaps). The cesspools were designed to leach their liquids into the soil, leaving the solids to be collected by "gong fermors" (a corruption of "gunge farmers") and sold to farmers as manure. It was a sensible system with much to admire. Nothing was wasted; everything was recycled. The nutrients ingested by humans in food were taken from their cesspools and placed back into land that would grow more food, which would be consumed by more humans, who would in turn produce more useful "waste." It was a harmonious recycling loop that also managed to be lucrative. It satisfied the demands of nature and of capitalism. But it did not work perfectly.
Excerpted from The Big Necessity by Rose George. Copyright © 2008 Rose George. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: Examining the Unmentionables,
1. In the Sewers,
2. The Robo-Toilet Revolution,
3. 2.6 Billion,
4. Going to the Sulabh,
5. China's Biogas Boom,
6. A Public Necessity,
7. The Battle of Biosolids,
8. Open Defecation–Free India,
9. In the Cities,
10. The End,