Sanitation Justice: Community-Inspired Academic Research Conducted Under Different Theories of Change

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The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice (EJ) as “The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Environmental injustices are not just a symptom of environmental conditions themselves, but are a manifestation of legal, economic, political, and social structures of oppression.

Globally, there are over 4.5 billion people who lack access to safely managed sanitation, with the largest burden of inadequate infrastructure being most greatly felt by communities which are marginalized based on income, indigeneity, and race. The work herein explores three different case studies of engagement with environmental injustices, leveraging academic environmental science and engineering, with three different theories of change: philanthropy-led research, academic-led research, and community-led research, respectively.

Case 1: The Philippines has poor access to improved sanitation, declining national food security, and water scarcity during the dry seasons. Although the country does not contribute as much to man-induced climate change, the Philippines is considered to be one of the most vulnerable countries to be disproportionately affected by climate change, further exacerbating lack of access to sanitation. Through the Gates Foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Challenge theory of change to privatize innovative technologies to develop for-profit businesses around innovative sanitation systems, a novel modular laboratory anaerobic digestate nitrification and denitrification post-treatment bioreactor system was is developed and operated for 200 days. The system achieved a combined removal of chemical oxygen demand (COD), total nitrogen (TN), and phosphorus (PO4-P) up to 84%, 69%, and 89%, respectively, and have successfully recovered vital nutrients for agricultural development by precipitating ammonium magnesium phosphate hydrate, a documented valuable slow-release solid fertilizer.

Case 2: A predominately African American community in Wake County, North Carolina which, despite being surrounded by White neighborhoods with municipal water distribution lines, relies on private wells for their water supply and relies on on-site septic tanks for sanitation needs. Residents have reason to believe that both on-site water and sanitation infrastructure are compromised, and contamination is of concern. An academic-led community assessment was conducted to determine exposure to standard pathogens and chemical contaminants using culture-based and qPCR methods. Cross contamination septic tanks and wells were evaluated by comparing antibiotic resistance gene profiles, microbial source tracking, and geostatistical models. From samples of 14 household wells, 6 tested positive for total coliforms, 4 for E.coli, 10 for sucralose, and 80% and 20% of total E.coli isolates tested positive for antibiotic resistance to amoxicillin and ceftriaxone, respectively.

Case 3: Lowndes County is a predominantly Black rural county in Alabama which has a rich history and present climate of racial discrimination, economic oppression, and social activism. Over 80 % of the county relies on on-site sanitation infrastructure and most of them are failing, exposing many to raw wastewater. Under the Center of Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice’s ownership and management, a community assessment of exposure to untreated sewage was conducted using samples from residential drinking water, surface swabs, public surface waters, and both residential and public soil samples using culture-based and qPCR methods. From samples of 43 households, 68% and 55% of houses had detectable presence of human fecal matter in their residential soils and on their doorsteps, respectively. Of the 18 publicly accessible surface waters which were sampled, 50% had detectable amounts of human fecal matter present.

To assess justice and equity components of the theories of change, each case study was contextualized within an equity framework and recommendations are presented regarding the execution of these strategies. Although different theories of change have various broader implications and limitations, the work herein supports the notion that environmental science and engineering can be utilized to address environmental injustices if inclusive and equitable frameworks are used in the research processes.





Hunter, Brandon (2020). Sanitation Justice: Community-Inspired Academic Research Conducted Under Different Theories of Change. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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