Dr. Heather Murphy, assistant professor in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at Temple University College of Public Health, has received a small grant for a preliminary health impact study examining the hygiene of community latrines in Nepal. It’s part of a much larger effort by the Canadian non-governmental organization (NGO) Aerosan, which received $100,000 (Canadian) in pilot funding for its HUB toilet project.
The HUB is a public toilet designed for developing countries and disaster sites with emergency sanitation needs. The design decreases the environmental impact of human waste by disposing of it safely, while using the waste to create renewable energy.
To do so, it employs a process called anaerobic digestion that converts methane gas from fecal matter into biogas. Nearby businesses can then use the biogas to create gas energy, electricity or transportation fuel. Meanwhile, the process itself helps with the hygienic breakdown of human waste.
The idea is significant for places where people who currently have no choice but to defecate out in the open or in public. Without proper disposal, the waste spreads disease.
Open defecation occurs in some developing countries and after natural disasters. Nepal was chosen for the study because of the amount of rebuilding necessary after a large earthquake in 2015. In order to get funding past the pilot phase, however, Aerosan must prove that community latrines in general are clean enough to be used safely. That’s where Dr. Murphy comes in.
“There’s a debate in the international community on how to get people access to sanitary latrines, and one of the only ways to do it in urban environments is to have community latrines,” she explained. However, international health officials don’t concur on whether or not the actual facilities meet basic sanitation requirements.
“What Aerosan has asked me to do is prove that community latrines can be as hygienic as household latrines,” said
To do so, she’ll compare results from four sources. In November, Dr. Murphy will swab 20 public toilets at Temple University. The measures of bacteria per square centimeter will serve as a baseline for the study.
Then, PhD student Ms. Shannon McGinnis, who works with Dr. Murphy, travels to Nepal in early January. There, she will sample 20 community latrines that are regularly maintained, 10 that are not, and 10 household latrines.
There’s currently little, if any, research that assesses the hygiene of these public facilities. Murphy plans to publish the data from this preliminary study, which will be included in Aerosan’s larger proposal for more funding. After that, she hopes the results are promising enough to justify more expansive studies on the efficiency of community latrines and how to improve them.
For that to happen, however, Dr. Murphy needs at least a snapshot of the current conditions. And, in a few months, she hopes to have that information for the first time.
“We don’t know what we will find in Nepal, or even here at Temple,” she said.