Should We Have to Choose Between Toilets and Cell Phones?

By Dr. Mark LeChevallier – April 17, 2013 – 2 Comments

My kids had a game they’d often play on long car rides called “would you rather?” Their questions were usually along the lines of “would you rather be able to ONLY eat your favorite food, or never be able to eat it again?” or “Would you rather have to kiss a pig, or touch grandma’s dentures?”It was a fun distraction, but a recent news article reminded of the game by asking “Would you rather have a cell phone, or a working toilet?”

As much as I enjoy being easily connected with people via my cell phone, I am a lot fonder of proper sanitation!  My response would be to pick the toilet. However, according to a recent U.N. report, more people around the world have access to a cell phone than to a working toilet. The study claims that of the world’s estimated 7 billion people, 6 billion people have access to mobile phones. However, only 4.5 billion have access to a toilet.   E.T. might be able to phone home, but he’d have a hard time finding a potty!

This is an alarming statistic considering the implications that a working toilet has upon sanitation, a clean environment, and social welfare.  Proper disposal of fecal waste is not only important for personal sanitation, but it breaks the cycle of disease by preventing contamination of drinking water supplies.  Did you know that world-wide, diarrhea is responsible for 1.5 million deaths every year?  Diarrhea is a major killer among children under five and it is largely preventable.

Case in point, India makes up 60% of the world’s population that lacks access to proper sanitation (626 million people), however there are an estimated 1 billion people with cell phones! The Ganges River in India has nearly 300,000 gallons of raw sewage dumped into it every minute!  A startling figure considering that one gram (0.035 ounce) of feces can contain 10 million viruses, one million bacteria, 1000 parasite cysts and 100 worm eggs (OK gross, but I’m a microbiologist!).

But this is not just a developing world issue; over 15 million people in America still do not have access to proper sanitation.  Infectious disease stunts child development and learning, promotes poverty, and increases the cost of social services. (It is estimated that every $1 invested in sanitation returns $9 in benefits.) It would seem that our world is becoming more attached to cell phones and technology and forgetting about the important everyday things like sanitary living conditions and access to toilets.

Thankfully, the U.N. Deputy Secretary- General Jan Eliasson announced that the organization is launching an effort to halve the number of those without access to toilets by the end of 2015. Eliasson said recently, “Let’s face it- this is a problem that people do not like to talk about. But it goes to the heart of ensuring good health, a clean environment and fundamental human dignity for billions of people.” Also adding to the effort is the Bill Gates Foundation. In August of 2012, they begin their own efforts to “reinvent the toilet” in order to help curb the number of people around the world that do not have access to proper sanitary waste disposal.

Knowing all this information now, if we were in the car together and you had to answer the question, “Would you rather have a cell phone or a toilet?” What would you say? And should we even really have to pick one or the other?


  • Scott Grace says:

    Very interesting yet staggaring information Dr. Mark. Perhaps an innovation opportunity to combine the two technologies. Maybe it could be called the smart phoilet. If only Steve Jobs was still alive.

  • Steve Wegman says:

    This past January I went to Cameroon for a water project with the UIUC Student Chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The people in the remote, rural village where EWB was completing a water system unanimously would have answered – – cell phones.

    They had only latrines (a hole in the ground covered by boards with a hole to squat over, some privacy fence around, and sometimes a roof overhead), but lots of cell phones, just as you were pointing out. EWB was working on an improved latrine project, but there was very little interest in it. In fact, when we surveyed residents of what they wanted, the top 3 desires were:
    1. For the water system to function year round (it stops running during the peak of the dry season – that’s what we were trying to fix)
    2. Electricity (have to keep the cell phones charged!)
    3. A health clinic
    Toilets, or even the EWB improved latrines, were never mentioned.

    For me, having a water filter, being healthy and only staying a week, the number one item I wanted was a working toilet.