UW Bothell works to reduce foul odor of latrines, airing issue in global sanitation

Student research to improve sanitation in developing countries.

  • Friday, August 17, 2018 1:30pm
  • News

The University of Washington Bothell is helping develop a disinfectant to reduce the foul odor of latrines. More than a superficial air freshener, the goal is a product that would increase the use of pit toilets by making them less offensive. This could improve sanitation in developing regions of the world where defecation in the open air spreads disease.

The National Institutes of Health awarded a $100,000 grant to Lori Robins, associate professor of chemistry, for research using hypochlorous acid produced by Briotech, a Woodinville chemical company.

For many Americans, talk of latrine odor draws embarrassed laughs about a funny smell in the restroom down the hall or an unpleasant experience at a hiking trail outhouse. For billions of people in the world, it’s not a laughing matter. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in 2015, poor sanitation was believed to be the main cause of 280,000 deaths in countries where open defecation is widespread.

“This could be something that changes the world,” Robins, a faculty member since 2013 in the Physical Sciences Division of UW Bothell’s School of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics, said in a press release.

In work that began this summer, Robins’ research group hopes to show that the chemical spray can combat four stinky compounds in a latrine’s headspace. In addition, they hope to show the aerosol inactivates noroviruses responsible for gastroenteritis, vomiting and diarrhea.

This research continues a UW Bothell partnership with Briotech and particularly Jeff Williams, its chief science officer. In 2016, Robins and two students were co-authors on a paper that showed that Briotech’s hypochlorous acid destroys prions, the abnormally folded proteins behind neurological illnesses such as mad cow disease and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Hypochlorous acid is naturally produced in white blood cells to fight infections. Briotech uses an electrochemical process to manufacture a pure form of the chemical it says is more stable than similar products on the market. It has a mild chlorine smell and is sold as a skin care treatment.

By the end of the first year of the two-year grant, Robins hopes to have the results of tests on the four compounds: indole, butyric acid, dimethyl trisulfide and para-cresol. Robins’ research group is analyzing the commercially available compounds by gas chromatography–mass spectrometry.

Indole smells a “little perfumey” at very low concentrations, David Shur, a senior Chemistry major, said in a press release.

At higher concentrations, “it’s the essence of poop.” Butyric acid smells like sour vomit, Joseph McKinley, a senior in Biochemistry, said. And para-cresol brings to mind that feeling people have after they realize they’ve stepped in dog-doo, he said. Dimethyl trisulfide is said to have the sulfurous smell of rotten cabbage.

Also part of the team are Scott Meschke, a professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the UW Seattle campus, and doctoral student, Erika Keim. They are testing how well hypochlorous acid inactivates noroviruses.

The chemical can be affordably produced in volume, and it might be sprayed in a latrine with a solar-powered fogger or spritzer, Briotech founder and CEO Dan Terry said, who is ready to build a test model in a portable toilet.

Unlike some aspects of chemistry, latrine smell research is relatable to everyone, Shur said, who would like to continue research in graduate school in the future.

“It’s been really beneficial in terms of helping me figure out what I want to do with my career, my future,” McKinley said, who also eventually wants to pursue postgraduate education.

The youngest member of the team is Evelyn Yang, an Inglemoor High School student working with the Robins group as part of the Pacific Science Center’s Discovery Corps youth development program. She now knows how to operate a gas chromatography–mass spectrometer and is more interested in a chemistry education.

For Briotech, Williams said it’s a pleasure to be a part of bringing science to bear on a real-world problem. Partnering with UW Bothell “gives legs to theory,” Terry said. “It makes it meaningful and real for both of us.”

Robins agrees it’s a worthwhile collaboration.

“I think my group has elevated the science behind their product, and I think Jeff has opened our eyes to different applications and thinking about problems and how to solve them a little bit differently,” Robins said.

More in News

The Council recognized the AFIS program as it celebrates 30 years of assisting law enforcement throughout King County. Councilmembers, AFIS staff and King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht join AFIS regional manager, Carol Gillespie. Photo courtesy of King County.
King County Council recognizes county’s Automated Fingerprint Information System

For three decades, AFIS has helped law enforcement solve thousands of cases.

‘This might have been a once in a generation opportunity’: Kenmore’s Lakepointe deal grinds to a halt

City officials unsure of what comes next for the more than 50 acre industrial site.

King County Flood Control District approves 2019 Budget on Nov. 5. Photo courtesy of King County Flood Control District.
King County Flood Control District approves $93 million budget

The 2019 District Budget will maintain current flood protection services.

Student veterans receive new resource center at UW Bothell

The Veterans Resource Center at UW Bothell was created after student veterans indicated they wanted a space designated for themselves.

Bothell voters approve public safety ballot measures

As of election night on Nov. 6, both the levy and bond were passing.

Democrats lead in 46th Legislative District

Voters are sending David Frockt, Gerry Pollet and Javier Valdez back to Olympia.

Democrats lead in 1st Legislative District

Derek Stanford and Shelley Kloba were successful in their re-election bids.

DelBene leads in 1st Congressional District in early returns

As of election night, incumbent Suzan DelBene was leading with 69 percent of the vote, to Jeffrey Beeler’s 31 percent.

UW Bothell Student Veterans Services held an Open House and Coffee event during this year’s Welcome Week and remains the main arm in helping veterans. The new resource center adds to this support. Photo courtesy of Marc Studer, UW Bothell
UW Bothell opens new veterans resource center on campus

The new Veteran Resource Center is designed to connect veterans and build relationships.

In Kenmore, the SMP applies to Lake Washington, Sammamish River, and Swamp Creek and associated wetlands. Bothell’s SMP, which was last updated in 2013, also governs development next to the Sammamish River (pictured) and Swamp Creek, along with North Creek. Photo courtesy of Mark Hussein
Bothell, Kenmore look to protect shorelines

Shoreline master programs protect and restore valuable aquatic resources for future generations.

Ashe joins Bothell as new economic development manager

She will work cooperatively with both long-time and future business owners in the city.

Said Farzad reportedly called in numerous bomb threats to state agency offices in Olympia. No bombs have been found, but the state agencies are increasing police presence and bomb-sniffing dogs. Reporter File Photo
Suspended psychiatrist suspected of making bomb threats

The suspect was previously convicted of telephone harassment of a Bothell insurance company and has reportedly called in numerous threats from various countries. No bombs have been found.