There are 2.5 billion people who use either open pit latrines to dispose of human waste or have no access to facilities and must defecate out in the open, according to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Setting the scene

Besides smelling terrible, pit latrines allow flying insects to spread disease. “They’ll land in the pit, get covered in pathogens, and land on people’s food,” explains Jim McHale, vice president of research, development and engineering at American Standard, which helped to develop an inexpensive device to retrofit pit latrines.

“This is a child survival issue. Let’s top talking about them crossing the borders, and let’s start talking about how we make where they live safe.”

But facilities must be nearby to be useful. "People can walk to the well, but in the middle of the night you’re not going to walk the mile to go to the latrine,” says Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for the United Nations Children’s Fund.

The lack of facilities also impedes women’s education. “In order for moms and dads to let their daughters go to a school, there has to also be a sanitation facility separate for the girls,” adds Stern. “They can’t share a latrine—that would be culturally unacceptable.”

Making progress

But the situation is improving. In 2014, UNICEF certified nearly 20,000 communities as open defecation-free. “For the first time ever, more than half the schools in the poorest countries have access to water and sanitation facilities,” Stern says. “In the last 8 years, UNICEF helped build water sanitation and hygiene facilities in 129,000 schools.”

McHale's team created a simple plastic cover with a counterweighted seal that can be added to existing facilities and flushes with only a liter of water. “What we came up with didn’t change the installation requirements, and it didn’t change the users’ habits, but it still was able to seal off the pit.” Three million people in Bangladesh and Haiti currently use the device, and a version for sub-Saharan Africa designed to use less water is in development.

“This is a child survival issue,” Stern concludes. “Let’s top talking about them crossing the borders, and let’s start talking about how we make where they live safe.”