What To Do When the Sanitation Hits The Fan

by | Nov 5, 2010 | Emergency Preparedness | 26 comments

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    The following article has been generously contributed by Tess Pennington of Ready Nutrition. Tess is a preparedness professional whose mission is to introduce easy to understand concepts and strategies for dealing with disasters and emergencies, be they man-made or natural. She is formally trained in emergency and disaster management response with the American Red Cross.

    Editor’s Note: In today’s emergency preparedness article, Tess Pennington deals with the “S” in SHTF. Though most preppers take the time to store water, food and preparedness gear, many fail to consider essential sanitation preparedness. Whether you are in a rural area, or in the city, sanitation will play a major role in your overall health and well being. Investing some time and energy into learning basic sanitation practices now will significantly reduce the potential for disease in your immediate vicinity if the SHTF – and your living area might smell nicer, too.

    It is a documented fact that more people die after a disaster due to poor sanitation than from the disaster itself. This is due to individuals not knowing where or how to properly expel waste. Fly infestations also pose a problem, and if waste is left out in the open, then it will only lead to the susceptibility of epidemics such as cholera, typhoid or diphtheria. The survivors of the earthquake that occurred in Haiti last year are dealing with this very problem.

    Hundreds Have Died From the Haitian Cholera Epidemic

    The Haitian earthquake survivors are not only reconstructing their city and their homes, but are dealing with a cholera epidemic due to unsanitary conditions after the earthquake occurred. As of November 2010, 4,764 Haitians have contracted cholera, and 337 have died as a result (Source). In fact, news sources have reported this epidemic outbreak to be the worst they have seen in 20 years. This epidemic broke out due to people being uneducated on how to properly dispose of waste. In all honesty, most everyone is uneducated on this subject, because our town’s and city’s waste management teams do the job for us. But if an emergency arises and the water and sewage systems are corrupted, then your waste becomes your responsibility.

    In an article regarding this subject, emergency preparedness author, Kellene Bishop of Preparedness Pro has this to say, “If you don’t take emergency sanitation seriously, then the consequences can be extremely dire – even up a 50 mile radius. Preventing waste from contaminating the soil is just as important as preventing the spread of any other disease as it contaminates crops, water, and air. Additionally, as water will be scarce in a time of emergency, ensuring that it does not get contaminated with improper sanitation habits is critical.

    Diseases such as cholera , are contracted through contaminated water and food, and often as a result of poor hygiene and sanitation practices. It causes acute diarrhea and vomiting. If left untreated, it can quickly lead to serious dehydration and death. Women and children are usually the most effected, and become dehydrated more quickly. In fact, UNICEF reports that “poor hygiene, and unsafe drinking water claim the lives of 1.5 million children under the age of five every year.”

    Add a Sanitation Kit to Disaster Supplies

    Having a sanitation kit that is ready in times of disaster is essential to keeping your family and neighbors healthy. These kits can fit comfortably into a bucket, are affordable, and will not take up much space. Additionally, being educated on how to properly dispose of waste is a key factor in keeping everyone healthy during a disaster.

    Some suggested sanitation supplies to add to any short or long term emergency kits are:

    • Disposable bucket or luggable loo
    • Toilet paper
    • Rubber gloves
    • Garbage bags with twist ties ( for liners of toilets or luggable loo)
    • Bathroom cleaner
    • Cat Litter or absorbent material such as saw dust or dirt
    • Baby wipe
    • Baking soda can be used to help eliminate odors
    • Vinegar
    • Shovel

    Disposal of Waste

    Properly disposing of waste products keeps water sources clean and cuts down on illness and disease. If city water is still available, flush conservatively. Grey water such as used dish water, bath water or water for cooking can be used to flush the toilet. If water lines are damaged, or if damage is suspected, do not flush the toilet.

    In a short term emergency situation

    If water services are interrupted, an easy way to utilize the toilet and keep it clean is to:

    • Clean and empty the water of the toilet bowl out.
    • Line the bowl with a heavy-duty plastic bag.
    • Once the bag has waste inside, add a small amount of deodorant such as cat litter, as well as disinfectant and securely tie the bag for disposal.
    • A large plastic trash can (lined with a heavy duty bag) can be used to store the bags of waste.
    • Once trash services begin, the city will come and collect these.

    If a portable camp toilet is used, the above mentioned can also be used. However, if the trash crews are not coming in a given amount of time, the bag of waste will need to be buried (see the proper way to bury waste below).

    Officials say to avoid burying your waste, but sometimes it is necessary. However, if waste is not properly taken care of, pollution of water sources will lead to illness and disease. It also attracts flies and insects which will spread the disease further. Understand that burying feces takes up to a year to decompose. Therefore, finding the right spot to bury your feces is crucial. There are biodegradable bags that a person can put their waste into. These can usually be found in the camping department of outdoor stores, or on the Internet. The bags assist the waste in decomposing faster and assists in preventing the waste from hitting major water sources. If a person does not have one of these handy bags available, the feces should be buried in “catholes” far away from water sources, campsites and communal spot where there are a lot of humans.

    According to Leave No Trace, there are some considerations when choosing a site to bury waste.

    • Select a cathole site far from water sources, 200 feet (approximately 70 adult paces) is the recommended range.
    • Select an inconspicuous site untraveled by people. Examples of cathole sites include thick undergrowth, near downed timber, or on gentle hillsides.
    • If camping with a group or if camping in the same place for more than one night, disperse the catholes over a wide area; don’t go to the same place twice.
    • Try to find a site with deep organic soil. This organic material contains organisms which will help decompose the feces. (organic soil is usually dark and rich in color.) Refer to the jars used to demonstrate decomposition. The desert does not have as much organic soil as a forested area.
    • If possible, locate our cathole where it will receive maximum sunlight. The heat from the sun will aid the decomposition.
    • Choose an elevated site where water would not normally runoff during rain storms. The idea here is to keep the feces out of water. Overtime, the decomposing feces will percolate into the soil before reaching water sources.

    Disposal of Feminine Napkins

    It is important to properly dispose of sanitary napkins, as they contain bodily fluid that could pose a health hazard to others. Methods of disposal may differ according to where you are are and what you have available. However, tampons and feminine napkins do not decompose quickly. Therefore, the best way to dispose of used feminine napkins tampons is to burn them. The fire must be very hot in order to thoroughly destroy the used items.

    In a long term emergency situation

    Sanitation in a long term disaster will require the same type of sanitation supplies in a short term disaster, however, a more permanent structure needs to be in place for long term use. Below is a video of an example of a long term latrine. In fact, this is a compostable latrine. One that can be made for any household and utilized in such a way that can be beneficial to the environment.

    In Summation

    Sanitation is a dirty subject that no one really wants to talk about. But it is an often overlooked aspect of emergency preparedness. When a disaster creates a situation where the water sources are compromised, the lack of sanitation in the given disaster area will be a disaster in itself. A 50 mile radius of individuals could be affected by illness and disease. Prepare appropriately for this aspect of disasters in order to prevent the spread of communicable diseases.

    The following article has been generously contributed by Tess Pennington of Ready Nutrition. Tess is a preparedness professional whose mission is to introduce easy to understand concepts and strategies for dealing with disasters and emergencies, be they man-made or natural. She is formally trained in emergency and disaster management response with the American Red Cross.

    Additional Reading:

    WHO Handout on Emergency Sanitation

    National Terror Alert Information on Sanitiation in an Emergency

    Emergency Sanitation Manual – e-book


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      1. Comments…..Great article.  Taking care of wast is a very important part of keeping a healthy homestead.

      2. Where I am from, there are still a lot of folks, who do not have in-door plumbing.   Outhouses are still in use, by maybe 20 % of  the people.

        Many, who live way back in the woods generally have deep wells for water, but their sewage system is simply  “over the hill”.

        Some how these folks seem to survive and remain healthy.    If  it has worked for 200 years…..it will keep working.   Of course,  many of these guys,  grow a mean smoke,  and produce a decent whiskey…….not that I know any of them……lol

      3. While I do have a septic tank type system here I have used a compost system for years,they work well and the result is a fine crumbly humus that is good for almost anything green.
        Sanitation is very important and in any group of persons it must be handled in order to avoid disease getting started.
        I would however caution against becoming paronoid about human manure,its no worse than any other and better than most when it comes to disposal…man has got to realize he is not seperate from nature but is an intricate part of it,one of the biggest problems we have now is the collape of the sewer systems particularly in city areas,people have an out of sight out of mind mentality when it comes to this subject and they dont want to really deal with it so they mix their crap with several gallons of good water and then flucs it into a system that dumps it into our water supply…makes zero sense! I realize this article is dealing with SHTF scenarios and that what I am adding is taking it farther in a different direction but it is an issue that needs common sense answers to and not high tech panic reactions that only push the problem down the creek so to speak. Thanks!
        PS A fella I know wrote a decent book on this awhile back and having been to his place I can tell you he has it working pretty well check out”The Humanure Handbook” by Joseph Jenkins

      4. Hmmm…..this must be an article for city folks…..most country folks been taking care of this issue on their own for a long time. 

        I put in a WAY oversized septic system 25 years ago that likely will function forever, ( had the tank cleaned few years back, but it really didn’t need it…..will never do it again ), our water is gravity fed spring ( and I own the mountain which is the water shed ), the water is heated by propane and have 3-4 years of tank reserve + a wood fired backup heater if that runs out…..and 15 years worth of toilet paper boxed away.

        Nah….think I got the sanitation issue covered……ahahahaaaaa

      5. for you modern suburbanite types save enough water in large garbage and utility cans to periodically fill the toilet reservoir. then flush the toilet when needed (into the sewer as needed). only abandon the sewer system when ABSOLUTELY necessary.

        fill these cans from the roof downspouts as much as possible. tell your neighbors this methodology. remember the marine corps truism >>> the coffee sure tastes better when the latrine is downstream. 

      6. Yes indeed… this article is primarily aimed at folks living in heavily populated areas.  And the reality is…they won’t do well if things degrade to such a point that even water and waste systems cease to function in a half way workable manner.

        I’ve no other insight than to post this :
        for most all my life (and I’m over 50) I’ve looked out and thought…there’s way too many people in the world.
        Way to much rampant development, too much growth…. to be sustainable.

        There are religious and economical reasons why growth remains unchecked. But to refute them I prefer simple reason to forced restrictions by a cornered government acting in panicked haste.

        Look folks..at approximately 7 billion… the human species has far overloaded the capability of the planet. I don’t care if you’re staunchly religious and anti-abortion, the fact is there’s too much begetting going on and we are smothering the planet in our numbers and each person need for resources.

        Population control SHOULD have begun decades ago.
        Now it is yet another sword over our head.

        Too many people and not enough jobs,water,food, and OIL to support them.

        Joining hands and singing kumbaya while chanting “let’s all get along” a won’t sove this problem.
        Something like Cold Fusion might. But then,  world wide war/famine/plague would too.

      7. “You don’t seem to understand, they shot my dog”.  This is do do 101 for the military that have been in the field or “in the shit”.  Got your shots?

      8. Comments…..@ mushroom
        Hey shroom, you can use some of those wonderfull crisp $10 bills you always talk about if you run out of TP. Pretty soon, that’s all they’ll be good for.

      9. Cholera, diptheria and typhoid epidemics do not develop after a disaster unless those microorganisms existed in the population prior to the disaster, or if they are imported as is the most likely case in Haiti.   After a disaster, it is more likely that common bacterial and viral illnesses would cause illnesses (E.Coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, norovirus).  Check what pathogens are endemic in your area and take appropriate precautions. Don’t forget mosquito and tick-borne illnesses in your area. However, forget about malaria and dengue if they don’t normally occur in your area.

      10. Oh, those poor Haitians…..just hours after the earthquake, there
        they were, playing dominoes with the piles of cement and demolished houses for backdrops.  Those poor, lazy haitians…..I
        DO feel so sorry for them, I want to fly over there and perform all
        the work that needs to be done, because, they, obviously, won’t
        lift a finger to help themselves in any way.  We should have
        more Haitians in the U.S. , so they can leave more cities looking
        like Detroit.

      11. Max Hardwood, welcome to SHTF, we especially welcome Nazis, KKK, White Supremacists, and racists of all kinds just like you. Once again welcome.

      12. The very best price on the Luggable Loo is at Wallmart; $35 includes the 5 gallon bucket, toilet seat w/lid and 2 boxes of the “double doodie” bags. 6 bags per box. They also have deoderant already in the bag and they consist of an inner bag and an outer bag with a heavy duty ziplock type closure system for the outer bag. The price includes free shipping to the Wallmart closest to you. The unit sits a little low for most folks, so get a couple of cinder blocks to raise it up ahead of time before you need to use it. $20 gets you another 3 boxes of the bags, so a family of four is set for 30 days.

        Don’t abandon your existing sewer system before you absolutely have to. A lack of water to flush the toilet would cause you to have to quit using the existing sewer system. Cheaper than Dirt. com sells what they call a “Water Bob” for less than $20 each. It is a bladder that holds 100 gallons of water and comes with a siphon pump. You put it into a bathtub and fill it with water. You can also fix up a box out of 3/4″ plywood that you hold together with 2″ X 4″ braces and deck screws. Make up and pre-drill the boxes ahead of time. The components can be stored in pieces so as not to take up much storage space.

        Don’t attempt to rely on water storage alone to get you by. Invest the less than $200 in a high quality water filtration system that will filter out contamination down to .2 micron. The Katadyn Filters featured on SHTF work great. They are used by our Special Forces Troops in the field. I have one of the Combi Filters and it works great. Invest the extra $10 into getting the repair kit which contains all of the ‘O-rings’ that the unit uses when you buy the filter. 13,000 gallons of good drinking water will get anyone a long way down the road.

        Don’t forget the large, heavy duty lawn and gargen trash bags from Home Depot and a gallon or two of regular chlorine bleach. Kitty litter with deoderant will also come in handy.

        I don’t have a financial interest in any of the sources that I have listed. Nor am I attempting to be ‘Mr. Know-It-All’. If you don’t like my advice, then please do your own thing. God Bless & good luck to all.

      13. yeah, I saw the pictures of all those lazy ass monkey savages in Haiti waiting for international aid to do everything for them…….  We OWE them after all…….. Just wait until the welfare debit cards and foodstamps quit working or go worthless soon…. we are going to lose a few major cities.

      14. Comments…..@ madmarkie,
        Very good tips given.   Something that many people forget about as far as usable water, is the hot water heater that everyone has.  Most domestic hot waterheaters are 40 gallon.  That’s a great source of clean water, that always gets replenished.  it might not taste very good, but it’s clean.
               As far as water for flushing toilets, I’m going to get a few of the used plastic barrels that they sell at most farm supply outlets.   These barrrels typically hold about 40 gallons, and cost about $20 each.
             As mentioned previously, don’t forget the bathtub.   it probably hold about 30 gallons or so.
             When talking about waste disposal, there are guidlines that are ideal, and then there are real world conditions.  In the cities, it will quickly turn into a stinky pit, as people continue to use a system that isn’t working, and it will reach critical mass at some point.  In the burbs, people will probably dig a hole in the yard, and this will work to some degree.  I have relatives from long ago that used an outhouse for most of their early years.  Basically, just a 8-10 foot deep hole with a crapper over the top.   it might not have been up to whatever sanitation standards there are, but they , along with many other people useed these for years.
            I’m sure people will use whatever they have to when the call of nature comes.  i can still remember seeing the sears catalog, and some corn cobs in these outhouses.  You had reading material, and tp at the same time. Not ideal by todays standards, but if that’s all you have, so be it.
             I think I’d save the little portable crapper incase I had to bug out.  Going out in the woods is no picnic.

      15. Comments….. We have a septic system here which was rebuilt 8 years ago.  If the septic were to fail during a SHTF moment, we will burn our waste, or simply open the lid to the septic and dump it in.  Those living in the city need the information provided here.  BTW, the only thing that goes into the septic in our house is poop–no toilet paper allowed.  Our laundry water is drained off down the hill to water the trees.

      16. How much of our toilet paper is being imported from Communist China?

      17. I plan to crap in a catapult and fling it all over the lefty neighbors property. LOL

      18. This guy that made this video is a fucking idiot gather 200#s of lime in 50# bags to take up the moisture from the waste & compost this in a very large pile of compost  this guy is not fo r real look at compost it is not natural for this matter to be in any garden that i would consider safe to eat from . ARE U KIDDING ME ????????????????????????????

      19. It’s smart to plan for the worst. It’s even smarter to avoid it all together.

        Read “Common Sense 3.1” at  ( http://www.revolution2.osixs.org )

        We don’t have to live like this anymore.

        “….Diseases such as cholera , are contracted through contaminated water and food, and often as a result of poor hygiene and sanitation practices. It causes acute diarrhea and vomiting. If left untreated, it can quickly lead to serious dehydration and death. Women and children are usually the most effected, and become dehydrated more quickly. ”….”

        Notice the news is reporting for the Haiti people to consume sugar and salt for diarrhea and vomiting?  Cure is rehydration with electrolytes like Pedialyte. 

        Make your own - to one quart of water add 1/2 tsp baking soda, 1/2 tsp of table salt and 3 tsp sugar.  I use Morton’s Lite salt because it has both sodium and potassium.  Can add Kool Aid type product to flavor. (not sugar free).  Drink through out the episode -Sip (not down it) it all day long.  I pre mix into individual packets and put some in with the Berkey, others in with sanitation supplies and the medical kits.  

      21. What’s the max range sanityjones?

      22. Your chemical supply should include bleach (chlorine) and lots of it. It is very useful for purifying water if you can’t make a fire. Pure water is absolutely the most essential thing you can have.

        As for feces and urine, a simple pit latrine that can be covered (no flies) is best. If there is no convenient cover, burial with earth is suitable.

        The composting latrines you advocate are extreme nuisances (stench) because the waste cannot be aerated. Stenches are lessened if the feces/urine/garbage are mixed with dry earth (about 4 lb/person/day) and turned regularly by shovel. They shoud be avoided. If there is any opening that allows flies such devices spread disease. These devices are similar in function to the open middens used in London slums during the cholera years.

      23. Tom, It really all depends on the packaging. I am currently working on several delivery methods which look promising. Lucky for me I have the high ground therefore my neighbors cannot retaliate in like form. My preliminary estimates are for a 20×30 sealed Mylar bag filled with excrement, launched from the 20’  arm of my catapult, to make accurate deliveries out to approximately 92 yards. A bigger catapult launching a medium sized chest freezer full of unsanitary extrusions should prove to be a bit more devastating.

      24. Liquid bleach – chlorine, does have a shelf life of 3-5 month at full strength.  Then it is on it’s way to being salt water. 

        Dry 68% Calcium Hypochlorite granules (swimming pool shock) is a good alternative.  To make it liquid – dissolve one ounce of 68% granules in one pint of water for 5.25% liquid bleach solution.  From:  http://grandpappy.info/water.htm

        I’ve only found 52% hth super sock it on store shelves- says available chlorine is 49%  – on clearance shelf for $1 a pound.   Figure to increase amount and would be good for bath and clothes.  Right now have 10 gallons of salt water – Bob is right.  This area needs attention on my part.

        Don’t forget fecal matter can be burned.

      26. I’ve seen the pumpkin catapults on tv.  A previous halloween pumpkin would be pretty scary.  I believe they had pretty good grouping. 

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