Read exclusive excerpts from Rose George's The Big Necessity on Slate.
Every day, you handle the deadliest substance on earth. It is a weapon of mass destruction festering beneath your fingernails. In the past 10 years, it has killed more people than all the wars since Adolf Hitler rolled into one; in the next four hours, it will kill the equivalent of two jumbo jets full of kids. It is not anthrax or plutonium or uranium. Its name is shit—and we are in the middle of a shit storm. In the West, our ways of discreetly whisking this weapon away are in danger of breaking down, and one-quarter of humanity hasn't ever used a functioning toilet yet.
The story of civilization has been the story of separating you from your waste. British investigative journalist Rose George's stunning—and nauseating—new book opens by explaining that a single gram of feces can contain "ten million viruses, one million bacteria, one thousand parasite cysts, and one hundred worm eggs." Accidentally ingesting this cocktail causes 80 percent of all the sickness on earth.
I once had a small taste of the problem. A few years ago, I was trudging up a hill in Caracas, Venezuela—through a vast barrio cobbled together from tin and mud and leftover plastic—when I saw a plastic bag filled with feces hurtling toward me. It splattered all over my chest and into my mouth. This wasn't an attack on a gringo intruder. In many of the slums that scar South America, there are no sewers, so the only way to dispose of your excrement is to squat over a bag and throw. It's called the "helicopter toilet."
Today, 2.6 billion people live like this: "Four in ten people have no access to any latrine, toilet, bucket or box. Nothing," George explains. In an epic work of reportage—taking her from the sewers of London to the shores of Africa to the bowels of China—George investigates the slow road away from this shit-smeared existence.
Her journey opens by tramping down at midnight into the place where that road began—the sewers of London. This city beneath the city can be deadly: Stinking clouds of hydrogen sulphide—the "sewer gas" that forms when sewage decomposes—will suffocate you if you get caught in them. Before these tunnels were built, London had "on-site sanitation." This is a polite way of saying people shat in a covered-up, set-aside space, and their feces were collected and sold to farmers as manure. But in the early 19th century, London's population rapidly doubled, and the city's buildup of excrement became unsustainable. The cost of having your private cesspool emptied spiked to a shilling, twice the average workers' daily wage. So, people took to emptying their cesspools into the Thames, which soon ran brown. By 1848 cholera outbreaks were killing 14,000 people a year, and then came the "Great Stink" of 1858. London reeked so badly people were vomiting in the streets. The drapes of the House of Commons were soaked with chloride in a (failed) attempt to disguise the stench.
At last, the order came to find a better way—and one of Rose George's heroes entered history. Joseph Bazalgette was the chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works, and along with Hamburg's municipality, he pioneered the great life-saving urban sewers of our time. "His sewers have saved more lives than any other public works," George notes with pride.
But there is a catch. Much as we want to flush and forget, the excrement does not disappear. Ninety percent of the world's sewage ends up untreated in oceans, rivers, and lakes. The costs of Joseph Bazaglette's invention—at the other end of the pipe—are now becoming inescapable. Much of our sewage is pumped, barely treated, into the oceans, where vast dead zones are emerging, killed by our germs. The rest infests water closer to home. For example, in 1993, an outbreak of shit-borne cryptosporidium in Milwaukee killed 400 people and made 400,000 sick. It turned out the city was pumping its "treated" sewage—actually treated for only some toxins, not others—into Lake Michigan and then slurping its drinking water out the other end.
In her search for answers to what to do with our swill, George lyrically dives into the toilet bowl, sloshing about like Gene Kelly singin' in the rain. "Of all the people of the world, the Chinese are probably most at home with their excrement," she explains. They defecate openly, chatting away with their friends in toilets with no dividers. Perhaps for this reason, the Chinese have been more creative than anyone else with their crap. Since the 1930s, they have been turning it into electricity.