The downside of low-flush toilets

Certain water restrictions, like San Francisco's low-flush toilets, come with some negative consequences, too.

Courtesy of Kohler Co.
The Kohler Cimarron Comfort Height flushes just 1.28 gallons of water and can save a family of four 3,200 gallons of water each year. But can America's infrastructure handle low-flush toilets for everyone?

Last week, Jeffrey Tucker pointed out some of the unintended consequences of low-flow toilets: to deal with the backed-up sewage (and the resulting stench), the city is apparently thinking about fixing the problem with bleach. Here’s one of my favorite Tucker articles in which he discusses the problems with 1.6 gallon toilets.

This gives me an idea for people interested in health economics, epidemiology, and public health. It would be interesting to try to estimate the contribution of low-flush toilets and other restrictions on water flows to the disease environment. The theoretical effects are a matter of logic: low-flush toilets aren’t a free lunch. All else equal, weaker toilets result in dirtier, more disease-prone environs. The San Francisco case Jeff mentions suggests too that weaker toilets probably require harsher cleansers.

While I don’t know the precise history, I’m pretty sure that water-saving regulations were adopted at different rates in different places. This should provide a setting in which the researchers would be able to estimate the contribution of water-saving toilets, showers, and faucets to the disease environment.

I file this under “papers I would write if I had unlimited time,” but I have too much in the air right now to start another project. I hope there’s a graduate student looking for a dissertation topic who is reading this right now. If you’re out there, the next thing you should do is work out the logic of the argument. In particular, try to explain how we can understand the unintended consequences and public choice problems presented by these initiatives in light of the theoretical framework developed by Mises, Hayek, and others. After that, you should read Werner Troesken’s Water, Race, and Disease. For an Austrian/Public Choice perspective on the provision of services like police and fire, see Chris Coyne’s and my paper on the 1866 Memphis Riot. The revised version and a follow-up paper will be available soon, I hope.

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