A unique strain of bacteria may bring some relief to one of China's most noxious problems, the eye-watering stench of its overflowing public toilets.
Public toilets are central to many of Chinese neighborhoods because of the lack of private bathrooms, but they are famously foul.
“There are too many flies, and the stink is too strong,” said a man who identified himself as Mr. Sun as he exited a public bathroom in central Beijing recently.
Condition are even worse in rural areas and the suburbs around Beijing, where open-pit toilets often have no sewer system. Last month, a mother and her son lost consciousness and died after climbing into an open-pit toilet to retrieve a $300-worth phone in Henan Province.
Scientists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences believe they have found a way to make the call of nature less distressing.
The scientists have developed a bacterial deodorant powder that can remove the stench. The bacteria, a unique strain of the waste-eating lactobacillus, feed off human waste and eliminates odor.
“I expect there to be a very large market for the bacteria, which can be applied to toilets to process feces and landfills to process food remnants,” said Dr. Yan Zhiying, a bacteriologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Chengdu Institute of Biology and the lead scientist in discovering the bacteria.
The lactobacillus bacteria feed off human waste and release lactic acid as its waste product, which eliminates the growth of most odor-making bacteria. Though lactobacillus is commonly found in yogurt, cheese, and beer, researchers spent years isolating a strain that feeds on human waste and produces lactic acid.
However, the bacteria can only function in environments that are over 26 degrees Celsius (or 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit). The strain also reaches optimal effectiveness only as feces accumulate, which means that they will not be as effective in flush toilets.
It's a big problem. The demand for the public toilets is so great that it's difficult to keep them clean.
"Everyday during the lunch hours, the line for the toilets would extend all the way outside, onto the streets. There simply is not enough time to clean the facilities,” said a woman whose job it is to keep them clean on a street named Guijie - "Ghost Street" - filled with popular restaurants. She declined to give her name for fear of angering her bosses at Beijing’s Bureau of Public Health.
A woman in her late 50’s who lives in a bungalow nearby and identified herself only as Ms. Xu said she doesn't have a toilet of her own, so she relies on the public facilities. “Every morning I have to wait until the first wave of people have finished before I can use” the toilets, she said. And she is distressed by the careless behavior of some of the people who precede her, she said.
There are limits, however, to what people are willing to endure.
Sun said the new bacteria would help as long as there’s no added costs. “As long as the mass application of the bacteria does not mean that using public toilets would require a fee,” he said.