• 11.07.11

A Raincoat For Poop, To Prevent Poisonous Seepage

Scatalogical, but true: A new project to line the outhouses of the developing world could save millions of lives with nothing more fancy than something we’ve all got in the closet.

Raincoats are already used to shield us from water falling from the sky, but what if they could also protect people in developing countries from dirty water coming out of the ground? In many places around the world, drinking wells are placed just a little bit too close to outhouse pits. The problem is obvious: Parasites, germs, and pathogens from the outhouse pits manage to sneak into drinking water. The solution may be as simple as rainwater fabric.


Steve Dentel, a professor at the University of Delaware, recently received a $100,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Grand Challenges Explorations Fund for his discovery that a fabric much like the waterproof, breathable material used in raincoats can be used to line outhouses and latrines, protecting the surrounding area from nasty organisms.

Dentel tested out his discovery by putting fecal matter in two pouches: one made of the breathable fabric, and one made of regular plastic. The fabric allowed water vapor to move through, but kept the fecal matter and its accompanying germs contained. Dentel’s tests revealed that the escaped water vapor is completely pure. And once the fecal matter is dried out (from the water vapor passing through), it becomes less dangerous.

Dentel is one of over 100 researchers awarded a Grand Challenges Explorations Fund grant in the latest round. Other winners include a project to breed grasshoppers as a protein source, a study using cell phones to monitor the safety of breast milk designed for donation, and a project using an infrared laser to strengthen the polio vaccine.

The possibilities for Dentel’s raincoat fabric solution are nearly endless. In addition to lining outhouses, the fabric could protect workers and nearby inhabitants in urban areas where bathrooms are overused, and it could prevent contaminants from seeping into crops. Raincoats, not just for keeping you dry anymore.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.