Did you celebrate World Toilet Day? The recent holiday is a good reminder to rejoice as you read this article on your phone, maybe even while sitting comfortably on a modern, porcelain toilet, which flushes with water so crystalline clean you could, in hard times, drink it without too much fear of dying. (We do not recommend doing that, by the way.)
Going to the toilet wasn’t always such a pleasant, risk-free experience for everyone, and even today, many people in America still go without proper sanitation. As recently as 1990, the rural stereotype of dropping trou in a shack out back was a reality for more than 1.1 million American households. If you think that’s a lot of people, here’s a little math for you. That represented 0.04 percent of the U.S. population back in 1990. Right here in 2015, a full 13 percent of the entire world’s population are still living without access to an improved sanitation facility and are forced to defecate in the open. That’s close to a billion people.
The problem overwhelmingly affects sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, but Census data shows 1,136,157 U.S. households were still using outhouses in 1990 because they lacked access to a public or private sewer or septic tank. In 2014, almost half a million U.S. households still did not have complete plumbing facilities, defined as having access to all of these items: hot and cold running water, a toilet that flushes, and a shower or bathtub.
We don’t have national data on outhouses any more — the last time Americans were asked about where their ablutions ended up was 25 years ago, in 1990. Back then, a massive 12 percent of Alaskan households, or 27,817 homes, admitted they used an outhouse to do their dirty work. Vast, chilly Alaska had almost three times more outhouses per capita than any other state. Next in line was West Virginia, where 4.4 percent of all households used an outhouse, followed by 3.8 percent in Kentucky.
The U.S. Census Bureau did not ask Americans about their septic system in the 2000 or 2010 Census, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson told Vocativ in an email, but the 2014 American Community Survey — which used a sample of 55,000 households — allowed them estimate that 480,278 did not have complete plumbing facilities. An estimated 3.8 percent or 9,544 Alaskan households had no plumbing at all in 2014, accounting for the highest amount of American homes per capita that couldn’t even pour a glass of water. At the opposite side of the U-bend was Florida, where just 0.2 percent of households in each state were without running water in 2014.