World Toilet Day: The art of the flush

Public Works Dept.
By ELIZABETH RAU  |  November 10, 2010

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Most people sit on their toilets. Some people paint them — for a good cause.

Take Emma Bissonette, a 10-year-old pistol from East Greenwich who decorated her toilet seat — an unused one, of course — with white-capped waves, lime-green seagrass, and "fishes, lots of fishes."

World Toilet Day, also known as the Big Squat, is November 19, and budding environmentalists like Emma are turning toilet seats into art to celebrate the importance of flushing and call attention to the 2.6 billion people who don't have what we all take for granted: toilets.

"I like the water and I just want to make sure everyone has clean water and that people don't die from bad water," says Emma, a fifth-grader at George Hanaford School. "I also like to do art projects."

The brains behind WTD in Rhode Island: Jamie Samons, public affairs manager for the Narragansett Bay Commission, which has two wastewater treatment plants — one in Providence, the other in East Providence — and processes about 32 billion gallons of sewage every year.

Samons wanted to tout the day in an unusual way, involve youngsters in the event, and brag a bit that Rhode Island was one of the first states in the country to build a plant to take dirty water and make it clean. "Yea for flushing!" she says.

Fifty students from grades K-12 will exhibit their "artistically enhanced" toilet seats at an exhibit at Firehouse 13 on 41 Central Street in Providence from November 15-22. A public reception for the artists will be held on November 18 from 5 to 7 pm and, yes, the seats will hang from the walls.

"The goal is to make this the coolest show ever so next year we have hundreds who want to participate," says Samons, who bought the seats for a mere $5 apiece at Home Depot. "Maybe we can even get public officials."

Toilets — or at least a primitive version of the modern ones — have been around since 3000 BC. Historians found drains in Neolithic stone huts on the Scottish mainland, and a palace on Crete featured toilets. The Roman Empire built long, bench-like communal toilets that did not take into account privacy issues.

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Medieval England invented the castle garderobe, essentially a hole that discharged into a moat. Chamber pots, a ceramic or metal bowl, were also used and the waste was often tossed out the window — splat!

In 1596, the era of modern sanitation began with the invention of a flush toilet for the very lucky Queen Elizabeth I. In the 1800s, people wised up to the fact that poor sanitary conditions caused diseases and eventually the flushable commode became a household necessity.

The invention of toilet paper and the indispensable toilet brush soon followed.

Organizers behind WTD tolerate the giggles — and, in fact, encourage them — to get people talking about a problem that, truth be told, is no laughing matter. Lack of proper sanitation is responsible for thousands of deaths in developing countries throughout the world.

Diseases such as diarrhea and dysentery — caused by food and water contaminated by excrement — cause about 6000 deaths every day. That shouldn't be much of a surprise, considering that one gram of human feces contains 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, and 100 parasite eggs.

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