From Medieval to Modern

Sept. 12, 2011

About the author: Neda Simeonova is editorial director of Water & Wastes Digest. She can be reached at [email protected] or 847.391.1011.

Sweeping progress has been made since the enactment of the Clean Water Act (CWA) in 1972. Led by the growing public concern about controlling water pollution, the CWA has resulted in strict wastewater standards for industry. It established the basic structure for regulating pollutant discharges into U.S. waters and funded the establishment of sewage treatment plants under the construction grants program. Wastewater treatment is and always has been essential to human health by preventing the spread of deadly diseases and protecting the environment. Even centuries ago, people were coming up with rather ingenious ways to get rid of waste. I recently came across a very unique article in BBC News Magazine. It revealed contents of a rare medieval document, the Assize of Nuisance, which discussed some mind-blowing toilet inventions and waste management techniques from some 700 years ago in 14th-century London. According to the document, a 700-year-old toilet was nothing more than a hole cut in a wooden platform over a cesspool. (Odor control not available.) The document reveals that a forward-thinking Londoner, who perhaps was unhappy with the functionality of the wooden platform toilet, built a toilet in her own residence. She engineered a wooden pipe that connected her toilet to a rainwater gutter that flushed a nearby public latrine. While extraordinarily inventive, the citizen was ordered by city authorities to remove the pipe because the solids from her toilet blocked the gutter and the stench greatly inconvenienced neighbors. Obviously, medieval cities lacked infrastructure that dealt with the disposal of human waste. Instead, waste was simply dumped into rivers or buried in the ground. And although there were rules forbidding the disposal of filth outside people’s homes, according to the article, these rules were mostly ignored. However, when the bubonic plague spread like wildfire across London in the late 1340s, city officials passed stricter laws to clean up the waterways, forbidding waste dumping into the Thames and other water bodies. The article also mentions some rather amusing professions added to the city payroll, including: muckrakers, the first street cleaners, who collected filth and took it outside the city walls; surveyor of the pavement, the first bin men; and gong farmers, who cleared out cesspits, latrines and privies. Needless to say, a lot has changed in waste management since medieval times, and not just in the form of regulations and standards. Advances in wastewater collection and treatment technologies have not only made a difference in water quality and environmental protection, but also have helped tackle water scarcity through effective reuse and recycling practices. Both energy-smart and alternative technologies have reduced facilities’ carbon footprint and operating expenses. Only time will tell how far technology development will go just in the next decade alone, not to mention centries from now. One thing is certain—wastewater treatment will forever have a large impact on society.

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About the Author

Neda Simeonova

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