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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Low-Flow Toilets: Flush This Idea

New York City plans to install hundreds of new "low-flow" toilets in public schools, replacing the old, standard, dependable toilets that would actually flush what you put in them.  

As is common with government policy, beware the unintended consequences.

As anyone who lives in a home built in the last ten years will tell you, an "old" toilet is a prized commodity because it actually effectively flushes its organic contents.  That is, after all, the purpose of a toilet: the removal of potentially health-hazardous organic material.  If toilets don't exist for health and sanitation reasons, we might as well poop on the bushes outside (just like people did 200 years ago and the homeless still tend to do today). The value of that removal has been recognized since 18th century scientists began to at least suspect a link between nonexistent urban sanitation and widespread, deadly diseases like cholera, and since at least the early 19th century cities began instituting urban sewerage systems.

The low-flow toilet idiocy turns this value on its head. (No pun intended.)  It replaces the sanitation / health and safety values with the uber-value of "conserving" water.  

The new toilets allegedly use 70 percent less water.  That assumes, of course, that nothing clogs up the toilet.  Stuff like organic material, human excretions and toilet paper.  (Insects and the occasional baby crocodile are not considered here for purposes of this column.)

However, when the new toilets inefficiently (er, they flat out don't) remove the organic material, we are presented with fresh, exposed organic detritus that exposes the surrounding air and water to cross-contamination.  Harmful, disease-causing bacteria can become airborne.  Toilets which aerosolize their contents with each flush end up spreading the bacteria in every direction other than down and out, turning rest rooms (and their hapless users) into petri dishes.  Efficient toilets promote human health the best by flushing the most organic material in one flush!

With a low-flow toilet, you have more harmful residue remaining in the toilet. In addition to this being simply gross, and a health hazard, you then have a clogging risk from the buildup of residue.  Partial clogs lead to multiple flushes, which exacerbate the problems I explained above as well as undermine the very rationale behind a low-flow toilet.  (But if you own a company that makes plungers, this is good for business.)

None of this seems to bother the environmentals one bit. Their highest value is water conservation. Human health is a secondary -- if not nonexistent -- value to them.  If little kids die from cholera because of cross contamination, that is apparently an acceptable tradeoff for the value of "saving" water.

But the concept of "saving" water is idiotic by itself.  There is a water cycle throughout nature.  Water falls from the sky, hits the ground, seeps into the ground and ultimately (whether through rivers, aquifers or sewers) goes back into the oceans from which it evaporates into the sky, then condensing to form clouds and ultimately falling back as precipitation or returning as atmospheric water vapor.  The "water" doesn't disappear.  To the extent water's component molecules (two hydrogen for each oxygen molecule) are separated, these elements are also among the most basic in the universe and constant combine and recombine.

If New York City's schools really want to save water, they'll keep all those old toilets.  Every last one of them.  And they'll flush the low-flow toilets along with the ban on oversized soft drinks.

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