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The Solution to Pollution is not Dissolution

This week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Ki Teitzeh, has many aspects to discuss, including the famous mitzvah of Shiluach HaKan, which was discussed in detail in an earlier Blog Post for Parshat Pinchas. However, for this Water Torah, we will focus on one verse in the Parsha which seems unusual and maybe a bit out of place.

וְיָתֵד תִּהְיֶה לְךָ, עַל-אֲזֵנֶךָ; וְהָיָה, בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ חוּץ, וְחָפַרְתָּה בָהּ, וְשַׁבְתָּ וְכִסִּיתָ אֶת-צֵאָתֶךָ.
“You shall have a paddle among your weapons, and it shall be when you sit down outside (the camp) that you should dig there, turn back, and cover that which comes from you.”

- Chapter 23:14

The context of the statement is to say that when the Israelites went out to war, each soldier should have among his provisions a paddle that he would use to dig a hole in order to relieve himself. He was told to dig a hole, relieve himself, and then cover it up.

When we think of Torah, we think of a holy text that instructs us about ethics and morality, how we should engage with other people and the world, and our responsibilities as Jews to make the world a better place. How interesting that the sacred text should provide instruction as to the proper disposal of poop. In fact, it should not be surprising at all. We have seen that the Torah addresses hygiene at great lengths. It addresses leprosy and other skin diseases. It addresses menstruation and childbirth. It commands us to cleanse ourselves through Mikveh, and we say a bracha (a blessing) when we wash our hands. So, with all of this, it should be no surprise that there is a command to properly dispose of our fecal waste. And for thousands of years, this seems to have worked.

However, as the human population grew, it became more difficult to properly dispose of human waste and modern sewage systems were developed to direct waste to rivers and creeks that were somewhat removed from population centers. As the human population continued to grow far beyond any population size our ancestors may have envisioned, even the massive sewage and water management systems built in the 20th century have proven to be inadequate for the volume that the current world population produces. New York City alone, with a population of over 8 million people, produces 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater every day. While the NYC Waste Management System is impressive and one of the best in the world, it is often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of waste and sometimes fails. Now imagine the hundreds of thousands of other cities, towns, and villages on six continents around the world, all trying to deal with the excrement of nearly 8 billion humans, not to mention the hundreds of billions of cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, goats, etc to feed those 8 billion humans, and you’ve got a lot of poop.

Waste water treatment plant

While the Torah commanded individuals to properly dispose of their waste, it has become eminently clear that it is virtually impossible to properly dispose of so much waste today. So, what happens to all that excrement? Around the world, much of it is pumped into the Ocean.

A recent study conducted by scientists from Columbia University calculated the volume of nitrogen and fecal pathogens entering the ocean from about 135,000 watersheds1 around the world and found that about 50% of nitrogen in the Ocean comes from just 25 locations, the majority of which came from Korea, China, and India. However, when nitrogen from agricultural runoff was factored into the equation, the US ranked third after China and India. While treating sewage removes solid matter and some organic matter, nitrogen is still present in treated wastewater and makes its way to the Sea.2

Whether treated or untreated, either way, the result is the same. Immense nitrogen pollution, causing toxic algae blooms, depleting the oxygen in the water, creating dead zones, killing millions of animals in the Sea every year, and endangering human life in coastal areas.

A map showing coastal sites where anthropogenic nutrients, such as nitrogen from fertilizers, have exacerbated or caused low oxygen levels in the water, leading to dead zones (red dots). BREITBURG ET AL, SCIENCE 2018

Of course, human waste isn’t the only factor in nitrogen pollution. Runoff from agricultural fertilizer is another major factor contributing to the exploding nitrogen pollution. In fact, agricultural runoff accounts for about two-thirds of global nitrogen pollution.3

Unfortunately, with the tremendous growth of the human population over the last 200 years and the need to feed so many people, nitrogen pollution is inevitable.

A dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (on the left), juxtaposed against an unaffected area. Photo by Nancy Rabalais, Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium

However, there are steps that can be taken to reduce nitrogen pollution. More efficient means of fertilizing agriculture are needed. Additionally, updating the aging and inefficient water treatment systems and reducing the number of livestock around the world can also benefit the ocean.

There are also personal steps that each of us can take. A positive step is limiting our consumption of meat and fish, and we can stop fertilizing our yards to make them look greener. Purchasing organic produce is another way that each of us can make an impact on reducing nitrogen, even though I know it is more expensive. This change can also lead to a better diet and, hopefully, better bowel function and less waste. For some of us, these might seem like sacrifices we’re not prepared to make but, I promise, it beats carrying a paddle and digging a hole.

For a better picture of the impact from nitrogen on watersheds and coastal areas around the world go to the Global Wastewater Model.

1 A Watershed is an area of land that drains all the water from that land to a common outlet such as a river.


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