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Is It Time for Americans to Embrace the Bidet?

In the United States, people are hoarding toilet paper and clogging sewer systems with wipes of all kinds. A little water could solve their problems.
In recent weeks, as the coronavirus has tightened restrictions on public and private life, Americans have been hoarding toilet paper, their shopping carts piled high, as supplies were quickly depleted: the shelves, and sometimes whole aisles, bare.
What we buy in times of crisis says a lot about who we are. “The pasta shelves are empty!” cried an older man stepping out of an Italian grocery store in a video from February. It makes sense that one of the first things to fly off the shelves in Italy’s version of coronavirus panic shopping was pasta — not just because Italians love pasta, but because food is so tethered to the way of life there, it’s almost synonymous with living. (They weren’t as concerned about toilet paper; many Italians use bidets.)
When the virus hit Iran, middle-class families bought rotting fruit at a discounted price from vendors who put out their bruised and unsaleable produce each evening, according to one Los Angeles Times report, reflecting the strain that U.S. sanctions, and now the pandemic, have placed on the country’s economy and its people.
The food made sense to me. But as the new coronavirus has radically altered many of our needs and habits, I have found it hard to wrap my head around all the toilet paper.
I grew up with an Iranian Muslim mother, who had passed along the ritual of washing after every bowel movement. What began as a source of shame (“Why do you keep watering cans next to all your toilets?” my friends would ask when they came to our house) would eventually become a badge of honor. My bathroom hygiene was immaculate. I would never know skid marks, except as something grotesque and unfathomable, like fascism.
After I moved out of my childhood home, I continued the tradition, keeping one watering can for my windowsill plants and another for me. I began to proselytize to friends: We use water to clean almost everything else. Why make an exception on the commode? They would cringe, unable to push past the thought of digital contact with feces.
But in the face of a toilet paper shortage, could they be convinced?
“At the heart of this is the question of sanitation itself,” said Martin Melosi, the Cullen professor emeritus of history at the University of Houston and the author of “The Sanitary City: Urban Infrastructure in America From Colonial Times to the Present,” in a phone interview. “What does cleanliness mean?”
Well into the 19th century, before humans understood bacteriology, it was common belief that disease spread through smell, Mr. Melosi said. Modern-day sanitation systems were built around this assumption, eliminating human contact from the things that could cause disease. Social class determined who received the best services. Until the late 19th century, only the most affluent could afford indoor plumbing.
Today, most American households have functional toilets. And in recent years, some have even come to include bidets — formerly spurned as French snobbery — and “smart toilets.” But this form of elevated plumbing has still permeated only the upper and upper-middle classes.Depictions of bidets in popular culture often focus on luxury models. In a 2016 episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” for example, Kris and Kylie Jenner visit the West Hollywood gallery of Toto, the Japanese brand famed for its toilets that offer, among other features, a “rear wash” nozzle that jerks up and down while emitting a thin stream of water like a precision strike missile.A 2017 “Broad City” episode shows Ilana Glazer’s character romanced by the rhythmic pulse of her affluent Upper East Side employer’s bidet, which offers settings like “staccato” and “water slide.”
There are several budget alternatives on the market — attachments that connect to existing plumbing — and some of those companies have reported recent spikes in sales. But for the most part, Americans haven’t been sold on an affordable, sustainable toilet paper alternative.
Sanitary wipes, for example, aren’t designed for the narrow sanitation systems in place. Days ago, I awoke to the sound of sewage bubbling up from my bathtub drain in my apartment. Later I discovered that the six-inch water pipe had been blocked; someone in my building had flushed wipes down the toilet.
According to a spate of reports across the country, the toilet paper panic has led to people flushing things down the toilet that they really shouldn’t — wipes, napkins and paper towels — which has caused blockages.When obstructions occur in the wastewater treatment plant in Charleston, S.C., the city hires divers to submerge through 13 stories of sewage, where they fill a dive cage with as many wipes as they can find before the obstruction is unearthed.
“There is zero visibility,” said Michael Saia, the public information administrator at the Charleston Water System, of the divers. “The water is so dark and densely black that lights are completely ineffective. They have to feel around with their hands and try to locate the obstructions.”Though there hasn’t been a recent increase in blockages in the city’s water system, the staff is monitoring the situation closely. “If our system was completely overwhelmed and all of our efforts to keep up with blockages failed, we’d have significant sewer overflows from manholes in the street,” Mr. Saia said. “It could create a localized environmental disaster right at a time when everyone is focused on keeping viruses at bay.”
The toilet and the virus may have a connection beyond all the toilet paper. In some coronavirus cases, gastrointestinal symptoms accompany respiratory ones. “There is a fecal-oral transmission route,” said Dr. Jeffrey Aronoff, a Midtown Manhattan colorectal surgeon, in a phone interview.
But Dr. Aronoff reiterated that hand washing remains the best preventive measure. “It’s not so much the way you clean your bottom. It’s what you do after you clean your bottom to make sure you don’t spread what was in your bottom,” he said. “It’s really washing your hands, because you spread things with your hands.”
That’s true no matter how you clean yourself.
In the United States, most people are still using toilet paper — and more of it than any other country, according to Dan Clarahan, the president of United Converting, which sells manufacturing equipment that makes toilet paper, among other tissue products. (“The majority of Americans are bunchers, not folders,” he said.)
For those seeking an alternative, there are many, though this is probably not the best time to buy one online; the delivery infrastructure is already overloaded with packages. You may, however, already have an option at home: the efficient, sustainable watering can.



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