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Toilet Microbes Could Remove Hormones From the Water Supply

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The effects of pharmaceutical drugs reach far beyond our own bodies. Plenty of hormones and other chemicals found in medications end up in our pee and get flushed into the sewage system, contaminating water supplies and negatively affecting the ecosystem. There are trace amounts of antibiotics, hormones like estrogen—though mostly from sources other than hormonal birth control, like agricultural waste and soy products—and other pharmaceutical by-products that wastewater treatment plants don’t filter out. Over generations, these chemicals can affect the fertility of fish and frogs, among other environmental impacts.

One potential solution: a bacterial coating that would live in your toilet. As part of a student competition called the Biodesign Challenge, inventors Amanda Harrold, Kathleen McDermott, Jacob Steiner, and Perrine Papillaud of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York came up with the concept for Live(r) Clear, a living enzyme membrane designed to block pharmaceuticals from making their way into the sewage system, Popular Science reports.

Designed to act like “living wallpaper,” the toilet liner would coat the bowl “with enzymes capable of breaking down estrogen, so that less of it is sent to wastewater treatment plants,” co-creator Kathleen McDermott told mental_floss in an email. The idea is that the estrogen-eating microbes would live in a honeycomb structure made of something like silicone. It would adhere to the sides of the toilet bowl, trapping the hormones in the water before they end up down the pipes.

It’s just a speculative design for now, but the students are looking to incorporate enzymes similar to those used by the human liver, such as one called CP450.

The students are one group of many art and design students competing to show off their bio-inspired, futuristic projects at the Biodesign Summit in New York City in June.

[h/t Popular Science]

All images via the Biodesign Challenge unless otherwise noted.

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Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP/Getty Images
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Design
Better Sit Down for This: Japan Wants to Modernize Its Squat Toilets for the Tokyo Olympics
Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP/Getty Images
Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP/Getty Images

Culture shock abounds in every foreign country, but few experiences can be as off-putting to an international tourist as walking into a bathroom and encountering a toilet you don't entirely know how to use. Perhaps that's why, in advance of the influx of tourists headed to Japan for the 2020 Summer Olympics, the country is looking to modernize its traditional squat toilets. According to Lonely Planet, the Japanese tourist ministry is trying to encourage municipalities to update their public restrooms with the Western-style toilets that visitors might be more accustomed to.

Though Japan is known for its elaborate, high-tech toilets with built-in bidets, seat heaters, and other perks, many of its public bathrooms have more simple accommodations. According to the country's tourist bureau, out of the 4000 public toilets near Japan's major tourist hot spots, around 42 percent are of the squatting variety rather than the kind with a raised bowl and seat. Now, squat toilets aren't just holes in the ground—they're usually made of the same materials most sitting toilets are and have flushing mechanisms. Except with a squat toilet, the flat ceramic pan is placed at ground level so you can crouch over it to do your business.

To make international visitors who are particular about their toilets more comfortable as they tour Japan, the Japan Tourism Agency has started offering subsidies for local governments that want to renovate their public restrooms. These grants are also available to private businesses and councils, according to Lonely Planet. The money can be used to either add more Western-style toilets or update existing models. (We can only hope some will take the opportunity to buy the kind that plays music.)

It's a bit of a shame that the Japanese government is so invested in getting rid of the country's squat toilets, because squatting is probably better for your health, at least when it comes to hemorrhoids. But at least it will be a welcome change for people with bad knees.

[h/t Lonely Planet]

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History
A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

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