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Potty Talk For The Greater Good

A makeshift latrine hangs over the water at the edge of Cite de Dieu, a slum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
John W. Poole / NPR
A makeshift latrine hangs over the water at the edge of Cite de Dieu, a slum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

How do you get people interested in the difference something as simple as a toilet can make for health?

If you're the head of the World Toilet Organization (yes, there is one), or the author of a page-turner about sanitation, or you're part of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, you talk toilets up. A lot.

And, it turns out, if you're in Seattle, which considers itself the home for new ideas on global health, talking about poop and toilets will pack an 842-seat theater on a Friday night.

Around the world, 2.6 billion people make do without access to clean facilities. Diarrhea — spread by exposure to germs in feces — is the second-leading cause of death in children under 5.

More people in the world have access to cellphones than to decent toilets.

Among advocates for better sanitation, the only question is whether to play it straight or joke about the john. Pretty much everyone gives in to humor.

The evening started with a Gates Foundation video that held all the giggle-words. Kaka (that's how they spell it). Doodoo. Crap. I could go on, but if you've graduated from kindergarten, you know how the rest goes.

Then came journalist Rose George, author of The Big Necessity. "Let's talk poop," she said right off the bat. "We all do it. We all think about it. We just don't talk about it, and that's really dangerous."

Poop is a "very good weapon of mass destruction," she said. A mere gram can hold 10 million viruses. A higher consciousness would lead to more effort to improve sanitation around the world, she said. She credits toilets with adding 20 years to the average lifespan.

During the intermission, there was a line at the women's room. Overheard: the usual discussion of whether to storm the men's room. A strident young woman pointed out, with no trace of humor, that limited toilet access at this event was "inappropriate."

Even so, it's hard to complain after hearing Rose George describe a Mumbai slum where there is a grand total of 10 toilets for 40,000 people.

After George came Singapore businessman Jack Sim, founder and head of the World Toilet Organization and the king of potty talk. His group sponsors World Toilet Day.

Sim's big idea is to make the toilet a way to keep up with the Joneses, so that people in poor countries will want to build and use their own toilets. For some, it will be a whole new way of doing things.

Sim strode onto the stage looking like he was at a TedX conference — Space Age microphone snaked around his head, a big smile on his face and a giant video screen behind him.

Sim grew up poor in Singapore, made money in construction and took on public toilets "as a hobby," he says. He's got a three-part plan: use humor to break the taboo about toilet talk, make toilets sexy, and get massive media coverage.

One way to get people in poor villages to want toilets is to give one to the wife of the village chief, knowing she'll brag about it. "Jealousy is a very strong marketing tool," he said.

His parting plea: go out tonight and tell your friends about toilets.

After the two talks, a couple of folks from the Gates Foundation came on stage to talk about ways to reinvent the toilet, such as making solar powered toilets, toilets that create cooking fuel, etc., etc.

Chris Williams of Gates took the humor option. Earning hisses from the audience, he said, "We now have the makings of a movement."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joanne Silberner is a health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. She covers medicine, health reform, and changes in the health care marketplace.