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Sewer Pipe Sanitation

by John H. Vandergrift

As a practicing Emergency Physician, I have been asked to provide my perspectives on sewer sanitation, since this is a perennially popular topic in the RV world!

The basic reason for sewer sanitation is that bacteria in our waste products (and we all know what that means ) can potentially cause disease. (That means they can make us sick.) It has been said that a greater improvement in the quality of modern life has been achieved by modern plumbing than by modern medicine, and this is probably true. Historically, more life has been lost due to diarrheal illnesses (such as Cholera) than to any other source - and worldwide, that continues to be the case, primarily in third-world countries.

The main source of this illness is the "fecal-oral route" of infection. This does not require that you directly consume fecal material, but that the contamination from fecal waste gets back into our consumed foodstuffs or water. The other route, which is of our greatest concern, is when contaminated materials from our septic dump is offered an opportunity to make us ill.

There have been many procedures proposed for keeping the potential for contamination from the sewer pipe to a minimum, but the simplest, easiest and most effective method is really just handwashing after any contact with the sewer system. It's really just that easy. In the medical field, the phrase used is: "dilution is the solution for pollution". What that means is that if bacteria are present on your hands (or in a wound), the best way to get rid of them is to use plenty of water to wash them away.

Soap by itself is germicidal, which means that it kills the germs. Antibacterial soaps have additional chemicals in them to also help more, but in general they are belts and suspenders. Make sure you do an adequate hand washing after contact with your sewer system - not just a rinse and wipe on the towel, but a decent 2-5 minute washing with enough soap to give a decent lather. Then rinse thoroughly and dry the hands.

More icing on the cake would be to use an alcohol-based lotion after that (such as Purell). It is a good idea to use impermeable gloves when handling the waste materials, but remember that gloves are not total protection, just as condoms are not. Holes can develop, splashing can occur, and contamination inside the glove from prior use can be present. Although wearing gloves can provide some protection (and I do advocate their use), they should not take the place of careful and adequate hand washing after handling your waste system. It is possible to use alcohol or other disinfectants on the sewer pipe connections after use, but I personally find this superfluous.

Remember that our sewer pipes often have a slight bit of seepage, and thus present an opportunity for instant recontamination. Recontamination will also immediately occur the next time you dump. I don't spend time fondling my sewer pipe connections at times other than when I'm using them, and since physical contact is necessary to transfer the germs from the connections to my hands, that last step of disinfection is really not necessary. However, if it makes one feel better for doing it, you may feel free to continue doing so.

My personal routine is to use a set of dedicated rubber gloves to avoid gross contamination to my hands, then to wash my hands thoroughly after the dumping procedure is complete and the gloves removed. That's it. Again (for reinforcement), handwashing after handling your septic system is the single most important thing you can do for preventing the spread of disease from your septic system.