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A Historical Review Of The Toilet And Its Contribution To International Sanitation Efforts

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November 19 is International Toilet Day. That may sound funny, but it is a serious event. It is a day to contemplate what we have and others don’t. As we sit in privacy on our comfortable flush toilets today, it is hard to imagine that a scant two hundred years ago sewage disposal meant emptying chamber pots into the nearest convenient place, which was often the street.

If you were out for a walk in Britain in the 18th century and heard the cry “gardy-loo,” you had better scamper across the street because the contents of a chamber pot were set to be hurled your way from a window. The expression derives from the French “regardez l’eau” and was commonly heard as chambermaids carried out their duties. Some even suggest that the custom of a gentleman walking on the outside when accompanying a lady can be traced to the desire to protect the fair sex from the trajectory of the chamber pot’s contents.

What may be even harder to imagine than the sidestepping of flying fecal matter is that roughly a third of the world’s population today cannot easily sidestep the problems associated with exposure to untreated sewage because of a lack of access to a toilet. As a consequence, diarrheal disease is rampant, killing more children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. In developing countries a child dies every twenty seconds as a result of poor hygiene. Mahatma Gandhi recognized the problem when he proclaimed in 1925 that “sanitation is more important than independence.”

The invention of the flush toilet and the introduction of plumbing for sewage disposal mark two of the most significant advances in history. Let’s get one of the toilet myths out of the way right away. Contrary to numerous popular accounts, Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet! It is easy to see how connecting his name with the invention would make for a compelling tale, but what we actually have here is a prime example of the classic journalistic foible, “a story that is too good to check.”

Almost all accounts of the Crapper saga claim that a 1969 book by Wallace Reyburn, cleverly titled “Flushed with Pride-The Story of Thomas Crapper” establishes Crapper as the inventor of the flush toilet. Reyburn actually says no such thing. The book is an entertaining celebration of the life and times of Crapper, the man who “revolutionized the nations’ water closets.” Indeed, that he did do. But flush toilets were around long before Thomas Crapper ever got into the game in the 19th century.

The first flush toilet appeared as early as 1700 B.C. The Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, built around that time featured a toilet with an overhanging cistern that dispensed water when a plug was removed. Curiously it would take another three thousand years until the next step in flushing technology was taken by Sir John Harrington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I. In 1596 Harrington installed a “water closet” in the Royal Palace that featured a pipe fitted with a valve connected to a raised water tank. Opening the valve released the water that would carry waste into a cesspool. Apparently the Queen was not overly pleased with the invention because odours from the cesspool wafted up into the Royal powder room. It would take another couple of centuries before this problem was addressed.

The first patent for a flushing toilet designed to keep sewer gases from seeping back was issued to Alexander Cummings in 1775. Cummings designed a system that allowed some water to remain in the bowl after each flush, preventing the backflow of odours. Joseph Bramah attempted to improve upon this system with a sophisticated valve that was supposed to seal the waste pipe after each flush. While it didn’t work perfectly, Bramah’s toilet was introduced at just the right time because London was beginning to install sewage systems. Some 6000 Bramah toilets soon dotted the city’s landscape. And then about a hundred years later, along came Thomas Crapper.

In 1861 the Thomas Crapper plumbing company opened for business in London. The time was ripe for the sale of plumbing supplies because the need for proper sanitation was being firmly established. A public report issued in the city of Leeds claimed a significantly higher death rate among children who lived in “dirty” streets where sewage flowed openly. And in 1854 physician John Snow had pinpointed the homes in London where someone had contracted cholera during an epidemic and traced the problem to water contaminated with sewage being dispensed from a pump in Broad Street. The need to flush away problems associated with sewage was becoming clear.

There is no question that Crapper made significant improvements in toilet technology. He invented a pull-chain system for flushing, and an air tight seal between the toilet and the floor. Crapper was also responsible for installing plumbing at Westminster Abbey where to this day visitors can view the manhole covers clearly displaying the name “Thomas Crapper Co.” What he was not responsible for was the introduction of the word “crap” into our vocabulary. That term meaning “refuse” predates Crapper by several centuries.

It is virtually impossible to attribute the numerous improvements in toilet technology since Crapper’s time to individuals. There are patents galore for eliminating overflow, reducing water usage, curbing noise, improving waste removal from the side of the bowl, devices to alert night time users if the seat is up and gimmicks to encourage men to aim properly. And the future may belong to toilets equipped with biosensors that automatically monitor urine and feces for health indicators such as sugar and blood. But for now, just think of the amazing technology that allows for the removal of the roughly 200 grams of poo we deposit per person per day. That’s a stunning 600,000 kilos in a city of three million!

So on November 19, as we get comfy on our high tech toilets, ready to flush away the remnants of a scrumptious meal, a roll of soft toilet paper and fragrant soap by our side, let’s give a thought to how we can help those unlucky enough to have been born in a place where “gardy-loo” still rings true.

***

Joe Schwarcz, Ph.D., is the Director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society and teaches a variety of courses in McGill’s Chemistry Department and in the Faculty of Medicine with emphasis on health issues, including aspects of “Alternative Medicine”.  He is well known for his informative and entertaining public lectures on topics ranging from the chemistry of love to the science of aging.  Using stage magic to make scientific points is one of his specialties.

The Magic Question That Every Patient Should Ask Their Doctor

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I realize that my blog has been littered with depressing musings on healthcare lately, and so I thought I’d offer up one very positive and “actionable” suggestion for all you patients out there. In the midst of a broken system where your doctor is being pressured to spend more time with a computer than listening and examining you, where health insurance rates and co-pays are sky-rocketing, and where 1 in 5 patients have the wrong diagnosis… There is one “magic” question that you should be asking your physician(s):

“What else could this be?”

This very simple question about your condition/complaint can be extremely enlightening. Physicians are trained to develop extensive “differential diagnoses” (a list of all possible explanations for a set of signs and symptoms) but rarely have time to think past possibilities 1 through 3. That’s one of the reasons why so many patients have the wrong diagnosis – which is both costly in terms of medical bills, time, and pain and suffering.

There is a risk in asking this question – you don’t want to be over-tested for conditions that you are unlikely to have, of course. But I maintain that the cost/risk of living with the wrong diagnosis far exceeds the risk of additional testing to confirm the correct diagnosis. So my advice to patients is to keep this very important question in mind when you see your doctor for a new concern.

In addition to asking this question of your doctor, you can also ask it during a second opinion meeting with another physician. The good news is that these days you don’t even need to get a second opinion in person. I myself have been working with an online second-opinion service called eDocAmerica for several years. Those who sign up for the service can pick the brains of board-certified U.S. physicians on any subject, 24-7 via email (and in some states via phone). The cost is extraordinarily reasonable when provided by employers, and winds up being about one or two dollars per member per month.

If you have a complicated disease or condition (such as cancer) where experts may not all agree on the best treatment plan, a company called Best Doctors offers detailed chart reviews and second opinions from top specialists at academic centers. Again, this service is quite affordable and reasonable if the cost is spread among a group. Employers are able to pay a small fee per employee per month to enroll the entire company in the service.

So why don’t all employers offer these benefits? I suspect that part of the reason is lack of awareness that second opinion services exist, and the other part is tepid demand on the part of employees. So if you’d like to make sure that you’re not one of the five people who have the wrong diagnosis, why not raise the question with your HR department? Enrolling as an individual is also an option, and still as inexpensive as about thirty dollars a month.

My bottom line: make sure you ask your doctor the magic question at least once for every new concern that you have. And if you’re too shy to do it, or your doctor’s answer seems too short, then get a second opinion online or in person.

This one little question could save your life.

The Pros And Cons Of CrossFit: A Physician’s Perspective

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I’ve been following (and often participating in) fitness trends for decades. From Jim Fixx’s outdoor running to Jane Fonda’s work out videos, to Conan-the-Barbarian body building, to step aerobics, to Tae Bo, to hot yoga, to Zumba, and now CrossFit… America’s exercise pendulum has been swinging wildly across the spectrum of possible physical activities. So have we finally reached a balanced mix of strength and cardio for optimum fitness? Maybe.

CrossFit is a system of exercise and nutrition (founded in 2000 by Greg Glassman) that claims to “forge elite fitness.” Their Reebok-sponsored annual games boast that the winners have proven themselves to be “the fittest on earth.” CrossFit advocates a mix of aerobic exercise, gymnastics (body weight exercises), and Olympic weight lifting. Workouts are typically short—30 minutes or less—and intense, requiring maximal physical exertion.

I’ve attended multiple regional Cross Fit competitions, watched national games, competed in a CrossFit style competition, and worked out with several CrossFit athletes as well as attempted their work outs (WOD) on occasion, though I am not a member of a CrossFit gym. All this is to say that I’ve spent a good deal of time contemplating the merits of CrossFit, both as an athlete and as a physician trained in sports medicine. And here’s what I think:

Pros:

Difficulty. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is an effective and highly efficient way to improve muscle strength and cardio-vascular endurance. In my opinion, CrossFit’s greatest contribution to the fitness industry is its emphasis on HIIT, something that has not been sufficiently emphasized in the past.

Nutrition. CrossFit emphasizes the importance of healthy nutrition as part of its fitness strategy. This is sorely lacking in other systems/regimens. While I might quibble with some of the more extreme “Paleo” proponents within the CrossFit community, there’s no arguing that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean protein, healthy oils, and complex carbohydrates (no sugars or refined flours) is a healthy way to eat.

Community. Peer support encourages consistency in participation. CrossFit does a good job in building community and making everyone feel welcome. All levels of fitness (and all ages) are welcome to join a CrossFit gym and participate to the best of their ability in the workout of the day (WOD).

Affordability. CrossFit gyms are relatively inexpensive to outfit (less high-tech equipment) and are easy to scale. For this reason they provide greater access to people at all income levels, which is a huge plus.

Portability. CrossFitters learn how to use their own body weight to create challenging exercise routines anywhere, anytime. There is no longer any excuse not to get a good workout in, whether you are traveling and can’t get to the gym or you are too busy to break free from the kids to do a more formal work out.

Cons:

Frequent Injury. CrossFit injury rates are substantially higher than most other fitness regimens. Herniated disks, muscle and tendon ruptures, rhabdomyolysis are not uncommon. In fact, most CrossFit athletes that I know presume that “injury just comes with the territory” and I frequently see Facebook photos of bloody/blistered hands as some kind of badge of honor. I myself sustained a low back injury even when carefully observing my technique during a CrossFit workout, and a dear friend actually ripped off one of the heads of his bicep when attempting an Olympic weight maneuver, while another friend fractured her wrist after falling down during a series of box jumps to exhaustion. Trust me when I say that if you do CrossFit long enough, you’re bound to become injured in some way.

Challenging Technique. Correct exercise form is hard to master, and since many CrossFit moves derive from gymnastics and Olympic weight lifting (sports that take many years to perfect), it is incredibly important to perform movements according to correct mechanical form. Although CrossFit experts strongly agree that good form is the key to safe and effective exercise, the fact is that people don’t always follow directions. In fact, most athletes that I’ve watched at CrossFit gyms suffer from poor form in one or more of their moves – sometimes because of inexperience, and other times because they are too exhausted to perform their final rep(s) correctly and their attention has waned. Functional movement is freer than the usual, controlled weight scenarios in a gym’s circuit training machines. And with that freedom comes the benefit of activating more muscles at a time, but the danger of injury, especially for new initiates or older athletes.

Peer Pressure. The flip side of having a “strong community” that encourages participation, is that the same community may push participants to engage in unsafe exercise practices. I’ve often seen well-meaning CrossFit instructors encourage people to pick up heavier weights than they feel comfortable with in order to push them to become stronger. There is a fine line between healthy encouragement to challenge yourself, and dangerously heavy weight lifting. It’s normal to want to “keep up with the Joneses” to your right and left during a WOD, but when Mr. Jones is a 250 pound tower of muscle, you might not want to be lifting the same weights.

Glorification of the mesomorph. There’s no doubt that committed CrossFitters develop enviably lean, muscular bodies. However, I wince a bit at the tendency for CrossFitters to promote the idea that their way is “THE best way” to be fit, and the bravado surrounding their competitions for “fittest on earth” is exclusionary and unfair. Just because an athlete was born with a different body type, ill-suited to Olympic weight lifting for example, doesn’t mean they can’t be fittest on earth (a rather subjective measure – why not an Ironman as the fittest?) There’s not much variation in the body types of those who are at the top of the CrossFit heap (i.e. large muscle mass, not too short or tall), which speaks to the fact that ultimately this sport is not optimal for all-comers (nor is the position of linebacker on a football team).

My bottom line: CrossFit must be approached with caution, though it provides some excellent HIIT and nutrition principles that can optimize one’s health. If you enjoy strength training (more than cardio or yoga for example) and like camaraderie but can resist the temptation to push yourself into the injury zone, then CrossFit may be for you.

I personally recommend (and participate in) what I would call “CrossFit light” – meaning workouts of similar CrossFit intensity but without extreme weight/maneuvers, and scaling up slowly (especially when new to exercise or a Masters athlete), adding additional cardiovascular training, and eating a diet slightly higher in complex carbohydrates than is generally recommended by strict “paleo” type CrossFitters. And of course, I do not believe that my way is the best or only way to be fit. If you like running, cycling, yoga, Pilates, or even step aerobics – good for you! Aim to be active for an hour/day – and add a little strength training in as you can. If you do that much, you may not be the “fittest on earth” but you’ll be doing more exercise than 96% of Americans!

Three Products That My Dermatologist Says Are “Of The Devil” – And Other Skin Tips

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This actress keeps her dermatologist on speed dial too.

As a light skinned, be-freckled woman with a history of pre-melanoma, I have been sternly instructed to keep my dermatologist on speed dial. Every six months I dutifully return to his office for inspection – nervously eyeing the biopsy tray as I sweat through my paper gown, legs dangling from a vinyl exam table.

In preparation for my most recent trip, I decided to be “an empowered patient” and arrive with a list of general dermatology and skin care questions that could be answered during my skin check. Judging from the near-syncopal episodes that I induced in my dermatologist while describing some of my hygiene practices, I’m not being very good to my skin. In fact, he wanted me to know that at least three products that I currently use are “of the devil.” Just in case you are inadvertently engaging in demonic skin care practices as I was – I thought I’d share what I learned:

1. Dryer sheets. According to my dermatologist, dryer sheets contain “a horrible chemical that no one can pronounce” that becomes “slathered all over your clothing” during the drying process. Although I was fond of the fresh scent and soft texture of my gym clothes, he assured me that heat and moisture was the best way to re-activate the irritating chemicals on delicate skin, virtually guaranteeing a contact dermatitis of the nether regions. So if you’ve been experiencing any unpleasant post-work out skin “issues” – consider dryer sheets as a potential cause.

2. Antibacterial ointments. Personally, I find that over-the-counter antibacterial ointments do a great job of preventing razor bumps. However, my dermatologist says that repeated or excessive use of these products can lead to allergies and colonization with antibiotic-resistant organisms. So… unless you want to be giving MRSA a “come-hither stare,” you might want to opt out of the Neosporin.

3. Battery-operated exfoliating brushes. I’ve seen so many ads for Clarisonic-type products that I figured they would be a reasonable choice for facial exfoliation needs. In fact, this topic may be somewhat controversial since I know other doctors who recommend these products. However, my dermatologist says that they are overkill and might do more harm than good to delicate facial skin, especially if you use any products that have an exfoliating acid included in their ingredient list, or if you use scrub creams. In other words, if you wash your face regularly, you probably don’t need to use additional aggressive cleaning measures.

In addition to the information provided about evil products commonly used by innocent people across America, my dermatologist offered these general tips for healthy skin:

1. You don’t need so much moisturizer. “You don’t need to put on moisturizer every night just because your mother told you to,” he said, bow tie looming large at eye-level. “Women think they need to apply moisturizer multiple times a day, but there is enough moisturizer in sunscreens and anti-oxidant serums to make additional products unnecessary.”

2. Throw away your 10x mirror. “Honestly, no one sees your skin at 10x, so why should you worry about what it looks like so close up? The best way to make your pores look smaller is to quit looking at them under a magnifier.”

3. Use physical block sunscreen every day. Most of the cheaper, spray-on sunscreens use chemicals to scatter light, but zinc-based sunscreens physically block incoming UV radiation. “The most important part of an ‘anti-aging’ regimen is to avoid sun exposure, and the best way to do that is with constant use of physical blocks.”

4. Skin-lightening cream (hydroquinone) can reduce the appearance of sun damage. Hydroquinone is the active ingredient in most skin-lightening creams. It acts to down-regulate melanin production in melanocytes, but can be reversed fairly easily by UV exposure (i.e. sunlight up-regulates melanin production). So even if you’re already pale-skinned, hydroquinone products can even out skin tones and sun spots – but only if you simultaneously commit to aggressive avoidance of UV exposure.

I hope you’ve found these skin tips enlightening (pun intended). I’ll have to think of some other good questions to ask my dermatologist in 6 months from now, during my next cancer screening. Because as an empowered patient, I intend to learn as much as I can in my 15 minutes with the doctor, and then share it with as many people as possible. 🙂

The Top 10 Things We Should Tell Our Patients About Weight Loss

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It is estimated that in seven years from now, half of all Americans will suffer from one or more chronic diseases, a majority of which are weight related. The American Medical Association recently declared that obesity itself is a disease. Obesity advocacy groups say that this move will lead to better health outcomes by providing more treatment options, preventative programs and education, as well as better reimbursement for treating individuals fighting obesity.

But what do patients need to know about weight loss?  The good news is that a  medically healthy weight does not require a very low percent body fat.

Weight loss for health – not for appearance – comes with a different (and in many cases much less demanding) set of recommendations. So for the purposes of this blog post, I’ll focus on key evidence-based advice for patients at risk for weight related disease…

1. You don’t need to lose that much weight to realize substantial health benefits.

A five to ten percent loss of body weight can lower risk for heart disease and other killers. For obese patients, even a modest weight reduction can have significant health benefits. An eleven pound reduction in weight leads to a fifty-eight percent decrease in the chance of developing diabetes. Even just losing two pounds reduces the risk of diabetes by sixteen percent.

2. Most people who succeed at losing weight (and keeping it off) do so with a combination of diet and exercise.

According to the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) (a database of more than ten thousand Americans who have successfully kept at least 30 pounds off for a year or more):

  • Ninety-eight percent of Registry participants report that they modified their food intake in some way to lose weight.
  • Ninety-four percent  increased their physical activity.

3. Walking is the most common form of exercise reported by successful weight loss subjects.

According to the NWCR, their study participants’ most frequently reported form of activity was walking. That’s not to say that other forms of activity (such as interval and strength training) aren’t an important part of a healthy lifestyle, but it is encouraging to know that brisk walking is a simple, affordable, and easily accessible place to start for most people.

4. Exercise itself (even without weight loss) is one of the most powerful preventive health interventions available.

Physical exercise has been shown to reduce blood pressuredecrease the risk for type 2 diabetes, strokes, certain types of cancer, and heart diseaseimprove arthritis symptoms and sleep disorders, and reduce erectile dysfunction, anxiety and depression. No pill or procedure can come close to providing all these amazing health benefits.

5.  Diet is more important than exercise for shedding pounds of fat.

As I often tell my patients, “You can’t outrun your mouth.” Which means – you can eat far more calories in a short period of time than you can ever hope to burn with exercise. For this reason, diet plays a larger role in weight loss than exercise.

6. It’s more important to lose fat than to lose it by following a particular diet.

If diet is so important for losing weight, the next logical question is “Which diet is best?” Interestingly, the answer may be – whichever one you’ll stick to. Now, of course there are some diets that are more nutritionally sound than others – but the benefits of fat loss are so great, that health benefits are achieved even on relatively “unhealthy” diets. In a landmark diet comparison study, Michael Dansinger showed that study participants achieved similar benefits (such as improved cholesterol profiles, blood pressure, and inflammatory markers) from adhering to any of four vastly different diet regimes ranging from low fat, high carb to low carb, high fat.

7. The healthiest diets limit refined carbohydrate and animal fat intake, while maximizing fruit, vegetable, and healthy fats and protein.

I’ve just argued that a variety of diets work if you stick to them, and adherence is the key to fat loss, and even modest amounts of fat loss can have substantial health benefits. So does it really matter which diet you choose? In the long run, yes. Research has shown that there are some common nutritional principles that result in optimal health. The key ones are:

  • Avoid refined carbohydrates as much as possible (such as sugar, fructose, and white flour/rice products). Unrefined carbs (such as whole grains, flax, oatmeal, brown rice, quinoa, berries, and cruciferous veggies) are an important part of a healthy diet.
  • Avoid animal fats (trans fats). Healthy fats such as olive, fish and nut oils are preferable.
  • Eat a diet rich in fiber, fruits and vegetables.
  • Choose lean protein sources, including beans, eggs, chicken, fish, pork, yogurt, and fish.
  • Limit alcohol intake and opt for water as your main source of hydration fluid.

8. Aim to lose 1 pound per week.

Cutting out approximately 500 calories from your daily caloric needs (established with a calorie calculator or by personal trial-and-error) is about as much as people can tolerate comfortably over periods of time. Diet adherence decreases as deficits exceed 500 calories per day.

9. The optimal, minimal amount of exercise for the average American adult is about one hour of moderate intensity exercise each day.

There is some disagreement on optimal exercise duration – some groups recommend half an hour per day (American College of Sports Medicine), others (such as the Institute of Medicine) a full hour. A review of the various positions and guidelines is available here. In terms of types of activity, there is general consensus that strength training twice a week should be added to moderate daily aerobic activity for best results.

10. You probably don’t need to take any vitamin or nutrition supplements.

Contrary to popular belief, most Americans (even with their sub-optimal eating habits) meet all of their basic dietary requirements with food intake. Non FDA-approved weight loss supplements have not been found to provide lasting benefits for weight loss and are generally ineffective and sometimes dangerous.

Weight loss drugs and surgical procedures may be effective last resorts for those who have failed to achieve results with diet and exercise. New prescription anti-obesity drugs and FDA-approved over-the-counter options are effective at helping patients shed extra pounds, but often come with unwanted side effects such as anal leakage and adverse cardiac events.

In conclusion, obesity underlies most of America’s chronic disease burden but can be reversed with modest weight loss through diet and exercise modifications. Patient adoption of long-term lifestyle changes are challenged by economic factors (e.g. healthy food “deserts” in inner cities), sedentary lifestyles, poor urban planning, excessive fast food and sugary beverage consumption, increasing portion sizes, and high tech conveniences that reduce energy expenditure, among other factors.

Patients are more likely to begin weight loss programs if recommended to do so by their physician, though studies suggest that they take advice more seriously if their physician is not overweight or obese herself. In our efforts to treat obesity, it may be especially important to lead by example.

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