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Toilet Air Analysis Could Be a Major Boon for Developing Nations

By researching the foul odors floating above toilet bowls, scientists think they can improve sanitation where it matters most.

image via (cc) flickr user zhurnaly

When I was little, I was endlessly amused by the fact that my mother owned a bottle of “eau de toilette” perfume, which I took to mean “sprayable toilet water.” As a five-year-old with zero French in my repertoire, the idea that someone would develop toilet-themed perfume was perhaps the single funniest thing my pre-adolescent brain could handle. (To this day, I admit, it still makes me smirk. But only a little.) How, then, could I have known that someday the overlap of toilet scents and the perfume industry might actually make a world of difference when it comes to improving sanitation in developing communities across India and Africa.


That, however, is exactly what is happening, following intensive research by a team of scent scientists on the exact chemical composition of toilet stench. Yes, you read that right: Toilet stench. The malodorous airborne mix of fecal flecks, urinal mist, and a host of other biological stinkers. By determining what makes toilet air stink, the researchers are hoping that they can develop a perfume antidote to the offending olfactory factors that dissuades people from using public restrooms in favor of other less-sanitary options in underdeveloped communities.

Put simply: By making public toilets stink less, the researchers hope more people will end up using them.

image via (cc) flickr user brian fitzgerald

In a paper published last month for Environmental Science & Technology, scent experts from Swiss perfume and flavor manufacturer Fermenich describe the process by which they set out to analyze the odors commonly found in rural latrines from India and Africa. Their work, they explain, is to better understand the chemical makeup of the air in a person’s “headspace” while in the bathroom, in order to develop super-perfumes that can specifically counteract the usual toilet smell, thereby making the facilities more appealing than using nature when nature calls.

In “Quantitative Headspace Analysis of Selected Odorants from Latrines in Africa and India” the researchers write:

A large community of scientists is now brainstorming about how to offer decent toilet systems in developing countries, not only in terms of the technical aspects of such systems, but also in terms of their cultural and economic aspects. The question is whether it is possible to create an economic model to sustain the long term implementation and maintenance of public latrines in these countries. In support of this effort, the ultimate goal of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation project, “Reinvent the Toilet Challenge,” is to provide sustainable and friendly toilets to prevent open defecation.
The perfumery industry has been active in counteracting malodors for many decades. As is the case for most malodors, it is critical to understand which molecules are responsible for toilet malodors to improve cost efficiencies in the development of perfume compositions.
To study the chemicals floating in these public restrooms, researchers developed a method to pump latrine air through a special water-based composition that seals the smelliest errant gasses. Those gasses were extracted and analyzed for their specific properties. What the researcher found was not only one of the most detailed breakdown of toilet odors ever assembled, but some interesting cultural differences as well. Per Quartz:\n
The team found that Indian toilets had a lot of sulphur gas. “There’s more anaerobic fermentation that causes a lot of this eggy, sewage odour,” [study author Christian] Starkenmann explained. The improved ventilation in the African pit latrines reduced this problem.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the study of toilet scents or any subsequent olfactory antidote will actually inspire more people to choose the sanitarily preferable option of public toilets over the potentially contaminating practice of simply using nature as a bathroom. Still, even just the prospect of a cleaner, healthier world seems well worth a momentary noseful of stink.

[via Quartz, Times of India]

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via Gage Skidmore / Flickr and nrkbeta / flickr

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