In modern society, public toilets has become a fixture wherever human activities take place; shopping malls, restaurants and filling stations all provide these places of convenience for travelers, diners and shoppers. However, when considering the nature and function of public toilets, many question their cleanliness and safety for public use. In addition, cultural and gender issues have also played a role in these debates. Women, for example, are obliged to make physical contact with public toilets, while this is not necessarily the case for men. In terms of cultural issues and sanitary concern, critics such as Isbit (2001) have suggested a toilet design whereby the human skin does not need to make any contact with the abode, but where both men and women squat to relieve themselves. To take these concerns into account, the history, background, and design of the public toilet should be considered in detail.
According to Keating (2010), there is some disagreement over the inventor of the sit-down, flush toilet that we find in most public places today. Some give credit for the valve-and-siphon design to Thomas Crapper (1837-1910), who was an English sanitary engineer. Others place its invention much earlier in human history, by a nameless Minoan who lived in ancient Crete some 4,000 years ago. A third group place the invention of the modern flush mechanism at 1775, when Alexander Cumming patented a flushing device. In addition, Sir John Harrington published a pamphlet under the title the "Metamorphosis of Ajax" in the 16th century, in which he provides full instructions for a valve closet. Somewhat later, in the 18th century, George Jennings made plumbing inventions that are considered to be the forerunner of today's toilet.
Biddle (2010) confirms that the history of the toilet is a somewhat difficult one to trace from ancient to modern times. There is, for example, ample evidence of ancient cultures with advanced plumbing systems, long before either the 18th or 16th centuries. Indeed, the author notes that cultures as ancient as 3,000 years ago had some sort of flushing system to provide them with a hygienic way of life. Specifically, the Harappa civilization had toilets in their homes with subterranean chambers to drain their contents. Inhabitants of Skara Brae in the 31st century before Christ had a draining system that led to a nearby river. The most common image of the public toilet in ancient times, however, is probably that of Rome. The public baths included toilets that drained into a meticulous sewage system. Biddle (2010) also notes, however, that private toilets were a luxury and generally only the privilege of the elite in society. The concept of the public toilet all but vanished when the Roman Empire fell. It was only during the 16th century that sewage systems received some attention again in the form of Harrington's pamphlet. It is because Thomas Crapper popularized the private flushing toilet in Europe that many today credit him with its invention.
After this era of invention, the toilet enjoyed no significant leaps in its design. The most recent development has been the suggestion for a squat toilet, which is claimed to have many health benefits that the normal sit-down toilet does not. In addition to physical health benefits, the squat toilet is also believed to have the benefit of accommodating cultural needs.
Cultural Issues and Toilet Design
Biddle (2010) refers to a growing body of research to suggest that squatting to relieve oneself, as opposed to sitting down, could have greater physical benefits than might be supposed. According to Isbit (2001), for example, squatting could reduce the risk of serious conditions such as hemorrhoids and other gastrointestinal problems. Several designs in this regard have already seen the light, although none is as yet in popular use.
Specifically, Isbit (2001) notes that there are seven basic advantages to using the squatting position as opposed to sitting down. According to Isbit, the first advantage is that elimination occurs not only faster as a result of the squatting position, but also easier and more complete. It prevents what is known as "fecal stagnation," which is a common factor in colon cancer, appendicitis, and inflammatory bowel disease. Squatting also protects the nerves that are in control of the prostate, bladder, and uterus. The sitting position carries the risk of stretching or damaging these nerves. Sitting down also risks leaks in the eleocecal valve, which could contaminate the small intestine. When squatting, this valve is securely sealed, dramatically reducing the risk of leaking and contamination. Squatting relaxes the puborectalis muscle, which results in easier defecation. A further advantage is that straining is prevented. Straining while on the toilet can cause conditions such as hernias, diverticulosis, and pelvic organ prolapse. Squatting also has significant benefits for pregnant women. It avoids pressure on the uterus when using the toilet, as well as preparing the body on a daily basis for a more natural delivery.
Isbit (2001) basis his theories on the observation of historical cultures and primates. According to the author, an upright sitting position to relieve oneself has only been a recent addition to society. In their natural environment, human beings and primates have always used the squatting position to relieve themselves. This is also a natural position taken by infants of every culture. The author goes as far as saying that the human body was designed to function in this way.
Indeed, until the middle of the 19th century, when the chair-like toilet was popularized for society in general, these have only been used by royalty and those who were disabled. The design of the "throne-like" water closet was focused on the concept of a "dignity" which was, up to then, reserved only for the most privileged members of society. Indeed, it symbolized the advances and civilization that were assumed to be part and parcel of modern Western society. Even more than this, the assumptions around taking a seating position while relieving oneself was integrated with the basic Victorian condescension towards cultures other than the "supreme" European white classes. The squatting position was regarded as "humiliating" and even "base."
Having established this attitude, the British plumbing industry was at the heart of installing indoor plumbing and water closets in homes throughout the country. The improvements in sanitation and convenience overshadowed the ergonomic flaws of the new design, which caused water closet users to strain, making elimination both difficult and incomplete. Although some critics did notice this, it was not a subject considered mentionable in polite society, and the water closet was forcibly accepted in British society. This acceptance was soon followed by the rest of Western Europe, as well as Australia and North America, none of which wanted to appear less civilized than the British empire.
The long-term outcome is that many physicians today blame the modern toilet for several serious ailments affecting the colon and pelvic area. Along with the already mentioned hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome, colon cancer, and appendicitis, other conditions that could be toilet related include polyps, ulcerative colitis, and diverticular disease. In support for this assertion, Isbit notes that South African whites and other populations of prosperous western countries are victims of high rates of these diseases. For rural South African populations and other poor communities, these diseases are almost unknown.
To further support his points, Isbit provides a very detailed amount of information relating to each of the colon and gastric conditions he mentions as resulting from the sitting toilet. His conclusion is therefore that the squatting toilet should re-enter society as a better, safer alternative, which could once again not only cater to the cultural requirements of many and the hygiene requirements of women in particular, but could also create a better position towards the general health of society as a whole.
What this means for public toilet design, according to Isbit, is then that the sitting toilet should be replaced by the squatting toilet in order to better promote public health. One difficulty with this is the potential resistance that might be offered by a public that is neither read nor willing to make the fundamental change that would be required by the radically different toilet design in question.
Many perceive public toilets as breeding grounds for germs and other unsavory elements. A study cited by Clark (2011), for example, found that 39% of survey respondents feared germs in public restrooms more than in any other public spaces. The question is whether this is a legitimate fear.
One fear that is sparked more by assumption that realisitic investigation is that of contracting sexually transmitted diseases in the public restroom. According to Clark (2011), this fear is not substantiated, since the viruses causing these diseases do not live very long outside the body, and certainly not long enough for effective transmission. While some note that there is an outside, theoretical risk of contracting herpes or crabs under certain conditions, this is not very likely. While current public toilet designs do not allow for squatting, some…