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Engineer Solves Toilet Stench Mystery for Forest Service

January 9, 1990

SAN DIMAS, Calif. (AP) _ Briar Cook is savoring the sweet smell of success. The U.S. Forest Service engineer has solved the longstanding problem of getting the stench out of the stalls at wilderness restrooms.

Delighted administrators in Washington, D.C., have formally declared 1990 ″The Year of the Sweet-Smelling Toilet,″ and plan to retrofit all 12,000 toilets in use on Forest Service land nationwide.

Another 300 new latrines built annually will incorporate Cook’s breakthrough findings, which followed years of research at a Forest Service lab northeast of Los Angeles.

″The public today expects a higher level of service and more amenities, and part of that is a good-smelling toilet,″ said Richard Woodrow, the Forest Service’s acting director of recreation. ″Well, we’re going to give it to them.″

Within three years, officials say, Americans won’t find a single smelly latrine in any of their 134 national forests. Costs are estimated at up to $1,500 each for the retrofitted toilets.

Cook’s other research projects at the San Dimas Technology and Development Center have included ways to bear-proof garbage cans, but he says he considers toilets his best work.

″Our society is funny about toilets - no one wants to talk about them,″ he said. ″But the odor problem affects a lot of people. As an engineer, I view it as a challenge.″

Cook found that the basic design of national forest toilets prevented adequate ventilation. He also determined that vent stacks were being clogged by undiscovered spider webs.

Through tests in a wind tunnel, Cook showed that a wider vent stack stretching much higher above the roof line greatly improves the expulsion of odors. Solar-powered fans also help pull the fetid air from the chamber, he found.

As for why no one else noticed the contributing spider web problem, Cook said: ″Nobody likes these little cabanas, so why would they go crawling around inside them? It’s in and out, as fast as possible. Nobody ever bothered to look in that stack.″

The problem of ridding forestland toilets of their odor had stumped many before Cook. Gripes about smelly toilets have been common since the first national forest outhouse was installed in the early 1900s, Woodrow said.

For decades, restroom odor has been the No. 1 complaint received by rangers from California to New Hampshire, he said, leading to a common conclusion.

″We figured that toilets stink, period. Take it or leave it,″ Woodrow said.

But the tenacious Cook proved them wrong. He said he hopes ultimately to share his design with the National Park Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and other public lands managers, all plagued with pungent potties.

″It’s a universal problem,″ Cook said.

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