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ON THE SHORTCOMINGS OF SOME MODERN SANITARY METHODS.

ADDRESS BY G. V. POORE, M.D., F.R.C.P.

Anniversary Meeting, July 14th, 1887.

I HAVE been for some years so strongly impressed with the shortcomings of one of the chief methods of modern sanitation that I felt bound, when the Council of the Sanitary Institute did me the great honour of requesting me to deliver the annual address, to choose for my subject that which was uppermost in my mind.

The chief aim of sanitarians has ever been, and ever will be, the securing for the masses of the people the two chief necessities of life-pure air to breathe, pure water to drink. Whether or not we are able to secure these two necessities depends very largely upon the method which we adopt for the treatment of putrescible refuse, and it is on this point, and on the modern fashion of mixing putrescible refuse with water, that I propose to address you.

It may be well to remind you that all dead organic matter is putrescible, and, when I speak of putrescible matter, I mean all organic matter inclusive of excrement.

Nature moves in a circle, animals feed on each other and on vegetables, vegetables feed on the dead bodies of animals and vegetables, and on the solid and gaseous excrements of animals. Animal and vegetable life are complementary, and mutually support each other. This is a law of nature, and when I make this assertion I feel I run no risk whatever of being contradicted.

The laws of nature are inexorable; i.e., they are not to be set aside by human prayers-not even by that best of all prayers, labour. Those who disobey the laws of nature or who enter into a contest with her are sure to be worsted in the end. we fight with nature we court calamity.

If

I have elsewhere compared those who fight with nature to Sisyphus who according to the old mythology was condemned

in the lower world to a never-ending contest with the force of gravity

With many a weary sigh and many a groan,

Up the high hill he heaves a huge round stone;
The huge round stone resulting with a bound,

Thunders impetuous down, and smokes along the ground.

By means of great expenditure of time and money, we may for a period wage with nature a war which may be apparently successful. The war can never be really successful, it will never terminate, nature in the end will assert her eternal sway, and crushing defeat must be our lot.

As the inevitable destiny of putrescible matter is to become the food of vegetables, a destiny which we can delay at the most only for a brief period, our proper course in dealing with it is clearly not to attempt to prevent or even to delay the inevitable. Such a course is to disobey the laws of nature, to fight with her and court ultimate defeat. Our wiser plan is to help nature in her work, and thus win her smiles.

It has been the wise custom in all ages of the world to dispose of putrescible matter by burial in the earth. Dead bodies have in all ages been buried, and the greatest of all lawgivers and sanitarians, Moses, whose likeness rightly takes the place of honour in this room, gave most explicit directions that excremental matters should be treated in the same way.

This is a not unimportant fact, and although we do not in this country follow the whole of the Mosaic law, nevertheless that law is so pregnant with marvellous wisdom that we ought not to discard any item of it without first questioning ourselves most strictly as to our reasonableness in so doing. The latest advances of modern science seem to show that in this particular Moses was absolutely in the right.

It has been shown, I think, conclusively that the decomposition of organic matter, whether in the earth, air or water, is brought about by minute fungoid organisms, the growth of which has the effect of resolving the highly complex organic compounds into soluble salts or gaseous bodies, which can be absorbed by the roots of plants.

Now when putrescible matter is buried in the earth it undergoes decomposition without the occurrence of putrefactionthat process which is at once offensive to the senses and dangerous to health. This is effected by means of mould fungi, which produce oxidation of the organic bodies. If sufficient air has access to the pores of the soil, and if sufficient moisture be present, the nitrogen takes oxygen to form nitric acid, which, combining with the bases, forms soluble nitrates, and the

carbon also combining with the oxygen forms carbonic acid which, combining with the bases, forms carbonates.

The best account which I have been able to find of the active organisms which are ever present in the soil, is in a paper by Professor Wollny,* of Munich, which was brought to my knowledge by my friend, Dr. E. F. Willoughby. These organisms are so incalculably numerous that their activity must be exceedingly widespread. Koch found enormous quantities, even in winter, in the soil not only of crowded places like Berlin, but in that also of remote fields. At the observatory of Mont Souris 750,000 were found in a gram of earth, and at Genevilliers from 850 to 900,000.

If the action of the microbes be checked by antiseptics, the vapour of chloroform or by heat (100°c), the chemical changes in the earth cease.

That the formation of nitrates and carbonic acid from organic matter in earth to which air has access is due to microbes has been proved by direct experiment. When however organic matter is mixed with earth, and air is admitted in insufficient quantity or entirely excluded, the decomposition is of another kind; and besides small quantities of carbonic acid and carburetted hydrogen, there is formed water, ammonia, free nitrogen, and a great quantity of a black carbonaceous peat-like matter (the so-called sour humus).

Schlösing found that the nitric acid in the soil disappeared when the air was replaced by nitrogen.

The kind of organism seems to vary with circumstances. As long as air is freely admitted, the mould-fungi (schimmelpilze) preponderate; and when air is excluded, the schizomycetes (spaltpilze) increase.

The formation of nitric acid in organic earth mixtures depends on the amount of oxygen which is present in the air admitted. Thus Schlösing found by experiment that the formation of nitric acid varies as under:

Oxygen
Nitric Acid

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The nitrification which took place with a limited supply of oxygen was due probably to the air already mixed with the earth before the experiment began.

Miller and Boussingault have shown that no nitrification takes place in thoroughly soaked earth to which little air has access, and that when oxygen is absent the nitrates in the earth are

"Ueber die Thätigkeit niederer Organismen im Boden." Deutche Vierteljahrsschrift für Offentliche Gesundheitspflege, Vol. 15, 1883, p. 705.

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reduced. The formation of carbonic acid also depends upon the admission of air (containing free oxygen), but some carbonic acid is formed even though all air be excluded.

[blocks in formation]

Nitrification is assisted by a moderate amount of moisture. It attains its maximum when the moisture reaches 33 per cent., and above and below this the process of nitrification and formation of carbonic acid is hindered.

Temperature has a great influence on oxidation in the earth. It reaches a maximum, with a temperature of about 50° C., (120° F.) and stops at 55°.

Oxidation goes on most quickly in the dark.

Thus, oxidation depends not only on the presence of the organisms, but also on the presence of other factors, such as suitable aeration, suitable moisture, suitable temperature.

These factors may all be suitable, or some may suit and others may not suit the oxidation process.

The decomposition of organic matter in the soil is governed by that factor which is at its minimum.

The process of decomposition is much influenced by the physical condition of the soil, as, e.g.

(a.) Permeability for air and water.

(b.) Nature and permeability of subsoil.

(c.) Slope.

(d.) Aspect.

(e.) Warmth dependent on aspect, mineral composition, colour and moisture and nature of the crop.

Barren soils are

warm, while those covered with green crops are cool.

That the variations of the ground water have a bearing on the oxidation processes cannot be doubted, when we reflect that the soaking of the upper layers of the earth is much influenced by the height of the ground water. When all the layers of earth are soaked, putrefactive processes, through the medium of Schizomycetes, take place. When the ground water falls, and the air again enters the pores of the soil, the growth of those organisms is favoured, which assist in the oxidation of the soil.

All changes which organic matter undergoes in the earth are thus seen to be brought about, almost exclusively, by the life of lower organisms the activity of which is ruled by the same natural laws which govern the growth of higher plants.

There can be no better illustration of the true economy of nature than this action of the microbes in the soil on the conversion of organic matter into soluble salts and gases which serve as food for plants.

The growth of the microbes depends upon the concurrence of those conditions which, by experience, we all know to be favourable to the growth of higher plants. There must be a good supply of free oxygen, sufficient, but not too much, moisture and a summer temperature. In well-tilled ground, broken up so as to admit air to its pores, and in a "fine growing season, in which sunshine alternates with showers, this process of oxidation is at its maximum. The microbes are active beneath the surface manufacturing plant food from organic matter, and the favourable conditions above soil and below cause a vigorous growth of crops.

When, on the other hand, the weather is unfavourable, and when in consequence of excessive cold, excessive drought or excessive wet, crops are not developed as they should be, the microbial life is also checked, and the change of the organic matter is delayed, and it is stored up for future use in more favorable seasons. This is the explanation apparently of the fact well known to farmers, that the effect of organic manures is more permanent than that of the so-called artificial manures, which at present are so much in vogue. The organic manure remains entangled in the soil and is not readily washed out of it in winter when the temperature is low, or even in unpropitious summers. It cannot be washed out until microbial growth has changed it into soluble salts and when this change takes place, which it does in "good" weather, the roots of the growing plants seize hold of the ever-forming soluble salts and appropriate them to their own use. In fact the farmer who uses organic manures from the farm-yard or elsewhere, need trouble himself very little with agricultural chemistry or experiment.

He may feel certain that if he buries his organic manure directly it is produced it will not be wasted. It will not give off ammonia to the air, nor will the juices be washed away by rain to the same extent as when it is left above ground to be a nuisance. There seems to be no doubt whatever that all heaps of manurial matter which give off ammonia and other gases to poison the air, and perhaps do more serious mischief which we "know not of," are allowing valuable matter to escape, which ought to be undergoing oxidation in the earth. There can be no doubt whatever that to the agriculturist stink means waste, and it is to be hoped that when the bucolic mind has imbibed this great and important truth, the country will be more evenly pleasant than it is.

The reason why farmers allow putrescible matter to fester in heaps appears to be

(1). That the matter has to wait until land is clear and circumstances permit of its being dragged to the fields; and (2)

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