Emergency Toilet Sanitation

The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure, Third EditionI was asked by our local neighborhood council to talk about emergency turlets for their public safety committee. Doing some preliminary research about what our government suggests concerns me.

FEMA and, it seems, all the state and local agencies I looked into rely on a poop in a bag, throw in some enzymes or bleach and throw it into a pit approach. In a short term emergency, a day or two let’s say, this might work fine. But if the emergency stretched out longer I can see some potential problems. And the cynic in me sees an opportunity for a contractor to sell toilet and enzyme kits to government agencies.

So what’s wrong with pooping in a bag? First off, it’s disgusting, something I know from backpacking. I have a feeling people might avoid latrines set up with “poop bags” and go do their business behind a bush. And I have a feeling that the government experts suggesting this approach have never tried it themselves.

Secondly, those pits full of bags could become a serious biohazard should rats, let’s say, start pulling the bags apart or should the pit get flooded.

As an alternative to the “poop bag” I was impressed with Joseph Jenkin’s humanure approach that he explains in a series of videos he shot in Haiti after the earthquake. You can see those videos here. Essentially what Jenkins did in Haiti was to forage carbon material (“bagasse” or sugar cane waste) and use that as a cover material in the latrines. This eliminates smells and maggots. He also set up a large humanure compost pile in a refugee camp using the same bagasse material as the carbon source. The hot temperatures in the compost pile kill hazardous microorganisms in human poo. As long as you’ve got a carbon source you can keep Jenkins’ sanitation system going indefinitely. With the FEMA approach you’ve got a problem when you run out of those bags and proprietary enzyme mixtures.

One problem with Jenkins’ approach could be finding a carbon source in an urban area, but I think that’s solvable (suggestions invited!). You also need water for the compost pile but it need not be potable.

I’m no sanitation expert and am interested in opinions on this topic, particularly those who have worked in emergency situations or in impoverished communities. What I like about Jenkins’ approach is that it relies more on knowledge (how to compost, set up a latrine) than equipment. The job then is to spread that knowledge. Learning how to compost should be a skill everyone knows how to do.

Jenkins’ Humanure Handbook: for purchase or free pdf download.

Rooftop SIP Garden in LA

Got to visit John Zapf’s vertiginous LA compound yesterday. He’s got an amazing rooftop vegetable garden using self irrigating pots. John has little sun in the yard so the roof is only option for veggies.

He uses drip line to refill the reservoirs. Reminds me of the Green Roof Growers of Chicago (minus the extreme weather).

His two cents on what to grow: chard good, zucchini good, corn in pots not so good.

For more info on self irrigating pots on Root Simple click on the label for this post below.

Are Pallets Safe to Reuse?

Now you know. Pallet parts have names.

As a fan and proponent of reusing pallets in building projects, such as chicken coops and compost containers, I’m often asked if I think they are safe to use given that shippers and manufacturers fumigate them with pesticides.

In the United States quarantine regulations require that pallets be treated with methyl bromide, a pesticide being phased out due to its adverse effects on the ozone layer. According to Mary Howland Technical Service Manager at Great Lakes Chemical Corporation, a supplier of methyl bromide,

Methyl bromide products are restricted use pesticides. A certified applicator license is required to purchase and use these products and strict adherence to label directions/requirements is mandatory. Under normal fumigation conditions methyl bromide is a gas and when the pallets are properly aerated according to label instructions, virtually no methyl bromide residue remains on the pallets and wood materials.

Now I’m not a methyl bromide fan and I find it’s use as a soil fumigant in agricultural applications appalling.  But I’m not too worried about reusing pallets. That being said, a Tylenol recall was linked to the use of tribromophenol (TBP) to fumigate pallets. Though, depending on if you believe the trade organizations behind wood pallets or plastic pallets (they hate each other), the Tylenol recall may have had nothing to do with TBP which is not used to fumigate pallets in the US.

So, as with most issues on this blog, no easy answer. But I’m still not concerned about using pallets as a building material.

More Pallet Composters

Thanks readers for sending links to some attractive pallet compost bins. The one above is at http://thriftify.wordpress.com/2009/03/12/easy-to-build-pallet-compost-bin/.

Another nice one at http://www.ecodaddyo.com/node/94, though I like to keep the bottom open and the compost in contact with the ground. Correction: the bottom is open on this composter.

It ain’t made of pallets but it looks like it will work nicely and you sure can’t beat the scenery. From Devon Morgan.

Compost Bin Project From Our New Book

Natural Home and Garden magazine has excerpted a shipping pallet compost bin project from our new book Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World.

I’ve been using shipping pallets as a compost bin for a few years now and they work great. A compost pile, in my humble opinion, should be a minimum of a cubic yard in order to jump start the heat and microbial life that makes for good compost. Nail together a couple of pallets and you’ve got a cubic yard sized pile. 

I’ve got two bins, side by side, but wish I had three. Mine also look like hell since I put them together in a hurry. I much prefer the bin the folks at Motuv in Kansas City created:

To answer ahead of time a question that always comes up–am I concerned about contaminated pallets? In short, no. A longer explanation will have to wait for another blog post.

Leave a comment on how you store compost. And if you’ve got an aesthetically pleasing bin I’m especially interested. Leave a link to a photo.

Going Wired

Cat 5 o’ nine tails via BoingBoing

The dangers of radiation from cellphones has been in the news lately and, from what I understand, existing studies are either inconclusive or deeply flawed. But it got me thinking about the safety of wireless internet networks–should I be concerned about possible health effects?

In terms of a direct physical effect, probably not.  Dr Michael Clark of Britain’s Health Protection Agency, speaking in a 2006 Sunday Times article says,

When we have conducted measurements in schools, typical exposures from wi-fi are around 20 millionths of the international guideline levels of exposure to radiation. As a comparison, a child on a mobile phone receives up to 50 per cent of guideline levels. So a year sitting in a classroom near a wireless network is roughly equivalent to 20 minutes on a mobile.

So I’m probably not going to get cancer from a wireless internet network and the jury’s still out on cellphones. But what about the power of suggestion, so often neglected in our materialistic world? What about the symbolism of a world crowded with cellphones, wireless telephones, radio stations and now ubiquitous wireless internet networks? What about a kind of negative placebo effect?

I think we should acknowledge the symbolic implications of the technologies we use as well as the power of the unconscious mind. Even if we fancy ourselves thoroughly modern, what about those lingering doubts buried in our subconscious? Couldn’t those doubts cause deleterious effects both mental and physical? The placebo effect is real.

Our wireless modem recently failed, giving me the opportunity to put my theory into action by going “wired.” A neighbor gave me a hundred feet of ethernet cable, so all I needed was a few other supplies and a trip through the crawl space under the house to make it work. Initially the clerk at Radio Shack thought that I was insane when I told him I wanted to get rid of our wireless network. After several visits the clerk eventually warmed to my eccentricities and kind of got into the project, looking up things on the internet in the store for me. After a few hours on the phone with AT&T tech support (located in the Philippines!) we went fully wired.

Like the Radio Shack clerk, Mrs. Homegrown also thinks I’m crazy but I hope she appreciates the non-ethereal benefits of our wired network: greater security and higher speeds.

For more on the advantages of an ethernet network see this comparison of wired vs. wireless.

And, as Marshall McCluhan used to say, if you don’t like that idea I’ve got others . . .

SoilWeb: An Online Soil Survey Resource

One of the highlights of the California Master Gardener Conference I just spoke at was a lecture by Toby O’Geen, Ph.D., Assistant Soil Resource Specialist at UC Extension. O’Geen mentioned an amazing online soil resource called SoilWeb, avaliable at http://casoilresource.lawr.ucdavis.edu/drupal/node/902.

SoilWeb overlays detailed soil information on Google Maps and Google Earth. There’s even a SoilWeb iPhone app allowing you to use the GPS capabilities of your phone to assist in shopping for, say, the perfect vineyard location.

SoilWeb maps cover most, but not all, areas of the US (Los Angeles isn’t included for some reason). While highly technical, terms are explained via hyperlinks. You click on the table to the right of the map for more detailed information including suitability for farming.

Of course in urban areas you never know what unpleasant surprises lurk beneath the surface such as concrete chunks and lead. SoilWeb won’t tip you off to those things, but it does give a good overall picture of the kind of soil you’ll be dealing with.