Gary Colet Photography / WIRED
Friday drinks have made a return in recent weeks. Months spent inside, the news that up to six people can meet outdoors and the sunniest May on record meant that millions have swapped pubs for parks. But, with public toilets closed across the country, if you’ve walked through a busy park recently you might have noticed a scent to the air. No, not sausages sizzling on disposable barbecues. We’re talking about urine.
This is becoming a problem for people like Emelda Marcos, who is fed up with strangers squatting where she sleeps. Marcos lives in the picturesque valley town of Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Her home overlooks the main town square, which hosts a twice-weekly market selling locally sourced cheeses, homemade chutneys and artisan bread. It sounds like the setting of a Beatrix Potter novel, if not for the fact the area has turned into an unofficial toilet during lockdown.
Marcos can’t open her window due to the smell, spends her days bleaching the pavements around her home and has reported repeat offenders to the police and local governments. But as government restrictions relax, the problem is worsening.
“We’ve had groups of people setting up tables near my house, getting drunk until midnight and urinating in the streets and marketplace,” says Marcos. “If a café had people urinating on the floor they would be forced to close, so why can stalls be selling food on top of human waste?”
Marcos has confronted guilty parties in the past but has been met with hostility. “Once, I asked a man if he was bringing a bucket of disinfectant to help clean and he became abusive. Others have spat at my window, laughing and saying they have Covid. It’s disgusting.”
In just a few weeks, the UK has gone from a nation in lockdown to a urine-soaked one. The streets of Edinburgh have become one gigantic toilet, according to edinburghlive, and roads across Doncaster are being decorated with plastic bottles filled with urine. “People are fly-tipping UK roads with bottles of wee – perhaps we ought to rename this environmental crime fly-peeing,” one concerned business owner told the Doncaster Free Press.
It’s difficult to know exactly how many are using shop doorways as personal pissoirs. There is no data. Parties who’ve decorated their local newsagent with shades of yellow wouldn’t share that with a YouGov pollster. So perhaps it’s best to look at where people aren’t going to the toilet, not where they are.
In 2018, the BBC found there were 4,486 council-maintained public toilets in the UK, around 15 public toilets for every 12,500 people. The toilet facilities of the 39,130 UK pubs remain empty and unused, and so too are those found in the approximately 8,149 chain coffee stores and 88,848 businesses operating in the restaurant and mobile food service industry. That’s a deficit of 148,627.
Most people urinate six or seven times in 24 hours, and according to Healthline, the typical human bladder reaches capacity at between 16 to 24 ounces of urine, or around 470ml to 700ml (slightly under a 568ml pint and a 125ml small glass of wine chaser). Given how footfall to UK parks is exceeding pre-lockdown numbers, that’s a lot of urine with nowhere to go.
“Since the government indicated lockdown would be relaxed, public urination has become a significant issue,” says Kevin Flemen, secretary to the London Fields User Group in east London. “This isn’t a problem just in the park itself but has a huge impact on people living in surrounding streets. In some respects they get it worse. They can choose not to go to the park, but they can’t avoid discovering someone has defecated on their doorstep.”
Recently, councils across London have erected signs, increased patrols, reopened some toilets and fenced off areas being used as public toilets to deter vigilante poopers. That may do little to stop the problem, though. “We see this being something we will need to contend with all summer,” Flemen says.
In the short term he is more concerned about the public health and potential environmental hazards. Human pee is rich in nitrogen, essential for healthy plant growth, but the presence of urinary tract infections means urine can contain DNA from bacteria. This includes genes for antibiotic resistance. Urine also produces ammonia, which starves rivers of oxygen and threatens freshwater fish and species more sensitive to changes in water chemistry.
Over 100 different varieties of viruses, bacteria, and parasitic worm are found in faeces, a list as long as it is grim. Recently, the World Health Organisation reported that one study found Covid-19 present in faecal matter, but that there “have been no reports of faecal−oral transmission” of Covid-19 to date.
“As humans, we have to eat, sleep, drink, breathe and go to the toilet,” says Raymond Boyd Martin, managing director of the British Toilet Association, a campaign group for better ‘away from home’ toilet facilities across the UK. “But we have people defecating in the streets. We’re trying to prevent a second wave, but what has been left behind may or may not be contaminated.”
So what measures can be taken to safely reopen these notoriously unsanitary spaces once lockdown lifts further? The answer may be to completely overhaul how we use them.
Public toilets will need to be cleaned much more frequently, after every two or three visits suggests Martin, and ensuring that adequate PPE is given to cleaners is both a mammoth and overlooked task. Queues will be longer, toilets may become more automated and people could be required to wear masks and gloves, use wipes on all surfaces and carry their own toilet roll. In 2019, the closure of public toilets was described as a threat to health in the aptly titled Royal Society for Public Health report ‘Taking the P***’, but despite this, public toilet maintenance is not high on the priority list of cash-strapped councils.
That said, any safeguarding measures may prove futile in the face of a pandemic. “The problem is that the first person who walks through the door may or may not have the virus,” says Martin. “We’re still trying to work out what the hell we can do.”
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