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Q&A: “The U.S. Has Its Own Toilet Problem”

Interview with Robert Brubaker of the American Restroom Association

UNITED NATIONS, Nov 12 2007 (IPS) - Come Nov. 21, the United Nations will formally launch the “Ínternational Year of Sanitation, 2008”, with the primary goal of finding ways to provide toilet facilities to some 2.6 billion people worldwide who lack proper sanitation.

Robert Brubaker Credit: American Restroom Association

Robert Brubaker Credit: American Restroom Association

But this problem is not confined only to the world’s poorest nations. The American Restroom Association (ARA) says there is a woeful shortage of public toilets in the United States, one of the world’s most economically advanced countries.

Robert Brubaker, a long-time public advocate on this issue, and the programme manager for the American Restroom Association, told IPS that his organisation will “absolutely” join the U.N. efforts to help resolve the world’s sanitation problems.

“The United States has its own toilet problems and the American Restroom Association is working to bring attention to it,” he added, in an interview with IPS correspondent Nergui Manalsuren.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: The World Toilet Association in Korea says that public toilets are a basic human right and feel that city governments should provide these free of cost to the public. Do you concur with this view?

RB: The American Restroom Association feels strongly that local governments, as well as transit systems, airlines, schools and businesses that serve the public, must provide free public restrooms. Toilets are part of the commons – facilities that serve the basic needs of all people. Street lamps, sidewalks and roads are all public goods that are available without user fees. Public restrooms are no different. A “fee to use” is an “impediment to use” that leads some to use locations not intended for sanitation. This spreads disease and hurts everyone. Public toilets need to be available and be publicly financed and maintained. Americans need to start talking about restrooms and speak up for them just as they do for streetlights and sidewalks.

IPS: The U.N. says that 2.6 billion people – 40 percent of the world’s population – lack proper sanitation. This results in widespread waterborne disease, particularly in developing nations. What are your thoughts on this?

RB: Sanitation is a precondition of public health in any country. The past three years have seen serious outbreaks of disease in industrialised nations: the recent drug-resistant staph infection, SARS, and E-coli and salmonella contamination. A clean water supply does not protect people if there are not proper sanitation facilities that allow simple precautions, such as hand washing.

IPS: In November, the United Nations will launch the International Year of Sanitation 2008. The primary objective is to bring international attention to the lack of toilets worldwide. Would the ARA join in such a venture?

RB: Absolutely. The United States has its own toilet problem and the American Restroom Association is working to bring attention to it. While most communities have well-functioning sewer systems and most homes have excellent toilets, Americans have much more difficulty finding toilets when they are away from home. The lack of availability of toilets has a huge impact on the physical and mental health of Americans. Waterborne diseases that result from sewage contamination of the water supply are by and large under control. However, in any country it’s crucial to maintain physical sewerage infrastructure and sustain hygiene education.

IPS: What are the key issues that ARA is addressing to the U.S. Congress in the Call to Action?

RB: America’s restroom problem – that is, the lack of available “away from home” toilets – can be traced to policy gaps at the national level. The right of most American employees to use the toilet is protected. Outside of the workplace, however, Americans have no legal guarantee to restroom use.

The American Restroom Association has been documenting the situation. Local governments are closing public restrooms. Government-supported schools are preventing students from using the lavatories. Transit systems have put their amenities off limits to passengers. Airlines have denied passengers use of toilets throughout the duration of flights and time spent waiting on the runway.

Two departments of the federal government in Washington DC have mandates to fix this problem. One has acted but the other has not. The U.S. Department of Labour regulates workplace restrooms throughout the individual states through the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA. They provide clear regulations that ensure that employees “will not suffer the adverse health effects that can result if toilets are not available.” Unfortunately, the authority of the Department of Labour doesn’t extend beyond the workplace.

The agency that does have the authority to address the adverse health effects that can result if toilets are not available is the Department of Health and Human Services. This is the principal agency of the United States government for protecting the health of all Americans. But so far they’ve failed to recognise the threat to public health if restroom facilities are not available.

The American Restroom Association wants action. Since the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has the mandate to protect the health of all Americans, we want Congress to demand that they spell out the public health requirements related to toilets. No new laws are needed; we’re only asking that Health and Human Services comply with their existing mandate.

IPS: Mr. Brubaker, from your experience, how difficult is it to raise the political profile of public restrooms in the United States?

RB: In the United States, there is a stigma associated with toilets. Everyone understands that they are needed and they can be discussed in general at the national level. Even the president, in a speech called “Strengthening and Caring for America’s National Parks”, mentioned that park visitors want working toilets when they arrive. Unfortunately, at the municipal level the reaction is often less friendly. People want them but they want them somewhere else. In the U.S. we call it NIMBY – or a “not in my back yard” problem.

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