Portable Alternative Sanitation System connects in-home sanitation systems where it was impossible before

March 20, 2019

This story appeared in the Jan.-March edition of the Mukluk Telegraph.

Healthy homes and communities are the foundation for improving the health of Alaska Native people. Rural communities lack adequate sources of water to meet health and hygiene needs, and facilities that can safely dispose of their wastewater.

Today, 33 Alaskan communities still use the honey bucket. For some of these communities, the possibility of eliminating the honey bucket and the health hazards that go with it seem to be getting farther out of reach as climate change threatens opportunities for traditional piped water and sewer service.

Climate change is creating new challenges in providing access to in home water and sanitation systems. Many of the remaining unserved communities face significant challenges to building and supporting sanitation systems in part because of their small size, lack of available fresh water, unique soil conditions and often their status as “environmentally threatened communities” at risk to the effects of climate change.

Innovative health solutions: Portable Alternative Sanitation System
In response to this issue, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium developed the Portable Alternative Sanitation System or PASS. The PASS is an intermediate solution for protecting public health in communities without piped water and sewer systems, and it functions as a stepping-stone toward more permanent sanitation solutions. ANTHC engineers designed PASS to contend with two major problems facing communities using honey buckets: health hazards and climate necessary community relocation.

Health hazards from honey bucket use include potential contamination from servicing the honey bucket inside and outside of the home, as well as the issues from inadequate access to clean water. Having in-home water and sanitation makes hand washing and healthy hygiene practices easier, which have been shown to reduce illness according to public health research including reports from ANTHC research studies. Infants in villages with limited water service have five times more hospitalizations for respiratory infection and 11 times more hospitalizations for pneumonia than the overall U.S. population.

The second issue is community relocation due to climate change. As communities experience the effects of climate change, such as erosion due to lack of sea ice coverage and thawing permafrost, their need to relocate grows imminent. Communities identified as imminently threatened are ineligible for federal and state-funded projects constructing permanent sanitation infrastructure. Because of this, identifying sanitation infrastructure funding for these communities at their current locations can pose a challenge.

How the Portable Alternative Sanitation System works
PASS addresses the public health issue by providing basic water and sanitation needs in the home. Treated water in a storage tank and a bathroom sink replaces the handwashing basin to make handwashing easier and more frequent. The PASS urine-diverting (UD) toilet provides an alternative to the honey bucket. The UD toilet eliminates the need to dispose of the large quantities of the odorous, mixed-liquid wastes associated with honey buckets. Separating urine from feces reduces odor. In addition, PASS is constantly ventilated to the outdoors, which further controls odors and allows solid waste to dry. Dried feces can be disposed of in the landfill or burned, and the small amounts of urine can be disposed of into the ground (see diagram on previous page).

Since PASS is portable, if homes need to relocate away from an eroding riverbank or coastline, PASS units can move with homes. Relocated community members will not have to rely on honey buckets while waiting for community water pipe installation.

Over the last three years, ANTHC has constructed and tested the PASS in five communities and as a result of these tests upgraded the PASS to improve the toilet design and water system aesthetics in response to feedback. PASS installations are in Kivalina, Oscarville, Chalkyitsik, Allakaket and Alatna. All systems, including the first installed in Kivalina, have received the upgraded toilets. Federal funding agencies have taken notice of the portability factor, and they are beginning to support PASS projects in honey bucket communities. Through PASS, the promise of one day putting the honey bucket in the museum may finally be fulfilled.

Designing alternative sanitation solutions in the most challenging locations and helping communities that are most threatened by a changing Arctic is a priority for ANTHC Environmental Health and Engineering staff.

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