Although Roman toilets were considered a great improvement at that time, a recent study published in the journal Parasitology shows that they were actually not that sanitary and they in fact led to the spreading of parasites.
About 2.000 years ago the Romans introduced the sanitation system in Europe. It included multi-seat toilets for public use, houses with heated public baths, drinking water coming from aqueducts and sewage systems. This was considered to be an innovative measure and the Romans were very popular for being able to find a way to keep the town clean. However it seems that parasites were more prevalent during Roman times compared to the Iron Age.
Research shows that in spite of all these seemingly hygienic programs intestinal parasites such as whipworms and roundworms survived and even increased. As a result intestinal infections such as Entamoeba histolytica dysentery did not cease to increase in Roman time. The disease led to grave diarrhea.
The research team led by Piers Mitchell of the University of Cambridge’s Archaeology and Anthropology Department analyzed the remains of the Roman Empire in search of archeological evidence of parasites. The researchers examined ancient toilets or latrines, fossilized feces (coprolites), combs, human burials and textiles. The evidence was collected from different Roman Period excavations. Remains of amoeba can be identified with antibodies which react to them. Mites, fleas and ticks were also detected by means of fine sieving of the soil.
Mitchell suspects that the warm water in the public baths contributed to the spreading of parasites. Cosmetics and human dirt probably accumulated on the water of the surface and some Roman baths which were not that clean perhaps did not change the water on a regular basis.
In addition the study also indicates that intestinal parasites last longer than people might believe. The eggs of the majority of intestinal parasites can be preserved for up to thousands of years if they have the right conditions. This is because they have durable chitinous walls.
Another factor which could have contributed to the spread of parasites could be the improper use of fertilizers. Feces were used to help the crops grow. However if the feces were not properly composed for several months before being used as fertilizers they could pass the parasitic eggs onto the crops.
Thus, even though the sanitation laws had the good purpose of removing feces from the streets, it actually led to the re-infestation of the population when they were used as fertilizers and contaminated the crops.
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