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article image'Sophisticated' ancient Roman toilets helped spread parasites

By Mark Shiffer     Jan 11, 2016 in Health
The ancient Roman empire had what was considered advanced engineering at the time. They created public baths, aqueducts, fountains, sewer systems and toilets. Despite the technology, parasites were widespread.
In fact, parasites were worse in Roman times than earlier eras, such as the Bronze and Iron age. This is one of the findings in a paper by Piers D. Mitchell, an archeologist at the University of Cambridge. Among the most common parasites affecting Romans were whipworm, roundworm, and a parasite causing dysentery.
The study was surprising because Roman culture generally promoted frequent bathing and cleanliness, at least for the nobility. Mitchell admitted his findings were unexpected.
"The impressive sanitation technologies introduced by the Romans did not seem to have delivered the health benefits that we would expect" he said.
Public toilets were common in major Roman cities, and were used for convenience. Some houses had private toilets as well. But it's evident people at the time did not understand parasites and infections. There is evidence that sanitary facilities were not kept too clean either. One of the items people used to wipe themselves was a sponge on a stick. In public restrooms, this would be shared by everybody.
The question remains why were parasites such an issue in the Roman empire? Mitchell points to several possibilities. Warm water used in bath houses could have helped spread parasitic worms. People ate a raw fish sauce called garum, causing tapeworm problems. Romans also fertilized their crops with human excrement, which was already likely filled with parasites.
Rome at it's height occupied much of Europe, parts of the Middle East, and northern Africa. The Roman republic was founded in 509 BC. Eventually it grew into an empire and was governed by numerous dynasties of emperors. By 476 AD the last emperor in Rome was sacked.
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