No Impact Week: The Enigma of the Water Closet

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 1910, Teddy Roosevelt said that "civilized people should be able to dispose of sewage in a better way than by putting it in the drinking water." He was right, of course, yet a century later that's still what we do. It's time to stop urinating and defecating in our drinking water.

The water delivered to our homes is drinking-quality water but we use only ten percent of it for drinking and cooking. We use about one-third outdoors to water lawns, shrubs, and trees. Of the water we use indoors, fully a third is flushed away. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that we use roughly 24 gallons per person per day to flush toilets. That's more than two trillion gallons per year.

Even more bizarrely, we keep repeating the process. Consider Saint Louis, Memphis, and other cities located along the Mississippi River. Each community treats its wastewater and releases it to the river, where it flows downstream until another city diverts and treats it, again, to potable quality and delivers it to homes where it is fouled once more. Rube Goldberg would be proud of this system. Our system for disposing of human waste is an enormous misallocation of resources that wastes water, energy, and money. And it jeopardizes human health.

Americans filled almost four billion prescriptions in 2007. These birth control pills, hormone supplements, antibiotics, and erectile dysfunction medicines contain endocrine-disrupting compounds. When we take these pills, our bodies absorb only part of the chemicals in them. The rest we excrete and flush away. But traditional water treatment systems do not remove these compounds, which the EPA has dubbed "emerging contaminants," meaning that it's concerned about them but hasn't figured out how best to regulate them.

So they remain unregulated and most cities, including New York, do not even test for the presence of pharmaceuticals. A 2008 investigation by the Associated Press found pharmaceuticals in the drinking water of at least 41 million Americans. Now, to be sure, the doses are microscopic, measured in parts per trillion. Still, scientists who have studied the impact on fish downstream of these plants have found alarming results: "intersex" fish with disturbing levels of the hormones of the opposite gender and male fish with immature eggs in their testes. Here's the bottom line: by using water to dispose of human waste, we are conducting a scientific experiment on ourselves.

The time is ripe, if I may be forgiven an unpardonable pun, to move in a new direction. The country's waste water systems are in a pathetic state of disrepair, with estimates to upgrade them ranging up to one trillion dollars. Let's not waste money rebuilding this absurd system.

Waterless urinals and composting and incinerating toilets already have niche markets. These systems may or may not become mainstream replacements for flush toilets. At this point, we simply haven't devoted the resources necessary to finding sustainable solutions to the problem of human waste disposal. Only the federal government can lead such an initiative. The president and Congress should establish a national commission to explore waterless options. We must stop putting sewage in our drinking water.

For more on the water crisis facing the United States, see my book, Unquenchable.