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.  Preparing appropriately for this aspect of disasters will prevent the spread of communicable diseases.[1]
    In a disaster plumbing may not be usable as a result of disrupted water and sewer service. Each household will be responsible for sanitizing their human waste in a way that will avoid infection and the spread of disease. Cholera epidemics are caused by open-defecation in densely populated areas from the bacterium Vibrio cholerae contaminating the water and food sources. Infected persons will have profuse watery diarrhea, vomiting and leg cramps. The resulting rapid loss of body fluids leads to dehydration and shock. Without treatment death can occur within hours.[2] Such is the case on the island of Haiti today following hurricane Matthew.
    What can you do if you lose water service during an emergency? We are assuming that you have some water stored. First, turn off all faucets, valves and outlets. This includes the valve at your toilet. This will prevent flooding when water service is restored. Turn off gas or electricity to your hot water heater. If it runs out of water and keeps heating, the heater will be ruined or might explode.[3]   
    In a disaster situation all water will become valuable. Potable water is drinkable and can be used for cooking and washing. Save the washing water, which now is called gray water. This water can be used for plant irrigation or flushing toilets into a septic tank. Don’t flush toilets if you’re on a community sewer system which has become compromised. Black water is water contaminated with human waste. It needs to be handled and disposed of with great care. Each person creates an average of five gallons of human waste per week.
   emergency sanitation Families can set up their home toilet or a portable bucket toilet with trash bags to capture waste.  Bag up the waste and store it in a can with a tight fitting lid in anticipation of community sanitation pick up later. Use sand or kitty litter to absorb liquid and odors in the bags. Should the disaster be a long term situation and the need to dispose of human waste arise, dig a pit 2-3 feet deep and 100 feet away from food and water sources. Cover it with dirt to keep out vermin.[3]
    You can find a list of items to store for emergency sanitation here. As much as possible, continue regular hygiene habits to prevent the spread of disease. To stay clean during an emergency:

  • Wash your hands after using the toilet and before handling any food.
  • Keep your fingers out of your mouth and avoid picking at bumps on your skin.[4]
  • Only drink purified water – bottled, treated with chlorine bleach, water purification tablets, boiled for 10 minutes or pasteurized in the Sun Oven® using the provided WAPI kit.
  • Wash all dishes in purified water after using. Rinse well. Eating utensils can be sterilized by heat.[5]
  • Keep your clothing as clean and dry as possible, especially under-clothing and socks. Hand wash using laundry detergent, rinse well and save this gray water.
  • If you get the clean up waste detail, in addition to above tips, use waterproof gloves and rubber boots and work clothes which you should remove after completing waste disposal. Goggles or face shields should be used, too.
  • Do not smoke or chew tobacco or gum while handling human waste.
  • Clean contaminated work clothing daily with 0.05% bleach (1 part bleach in 100 parts water.)[6]


Billie Nicholson, Editor
October 2016

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