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It's World Toilet Day! Time for quirky signs (thanks, readers) ... and serious talk

For World Toilet Day (Nov. 19), we asked readers to send in photos of the quirkiest toilet signs they've encountered. Clockwise from left: Kim Worsham; Bradley Phillips; Michelle Hiebert; Maria Khan
For World Toilet Day (Nov. 19), we asked readers to send in photos of the quirkiest toilet signs they've encountered. Clockwise from left: Kim Worsham; Bradley Phillips; Michelle Hiebert; Maria Khan

Looking at the past stories we've published about World Toilet Day makes me flush with happiness. I mean, just the headlines ...

"Take the plunge into World Toilet Day." (That was in 2014).

and ...

"Oh, the places you'll go: Toilet signs try to help." (From 2018, because we can't get enough of toilet humor.)

But in all seriousness, World Toilet Day is a serious event. In 2013, the United Nations officially dubbed Nov. 19 the day to "celebrate toilets and raise awareness of the 3.6 billion people living without access to safely managed sanitation" – in other words, a place to do number 1 and number 2 with dignity, without risk to your safety and without endangering others with diseases that stem from fecal matter.

Indeed, each year, diarrheal diseases, which can spread via contact with fecal matter, kill half a million kids age 5 and under. Youngsters who contract these diseases and survive often are physically and cognitively stunted for life.

Using the bathroom out in the open — say, in a field or street or a body of water — is a risk factor for the spread of diarrhea as well as diseases like cholera and typhoid. According to a 2020 report by UNICEF and WHO, 494 million people practice open defecation.

Public health agencies are working to bring better and safer options for going to the bathroom to places that are lacking, says Laura Kallen, a communications officer for the Defeat Diarrheal Disease (DefeatDD) Initiative at the health nonprofit PATH. That includes not only toilets but sanitation systems to dispose of waste safely and water for handwashing. That 2020 UNICEF/WHO report shows that in the year 2000, only 29% of Earth's residents had access to safely managed sanitation. By 2020, the rate rose to 54%.

But that still means nearly half of humans lack that basic human right. And yes, it is a basic human right to have sanitation — the U.N. has declared it thus.

"The toilet is an extremely undervalued form of basic protection in public health," says Hope Randall, one of Kallen's colleagues.

So why do a World Toilet Day story that shows funny toilet signs?

Let us explain.

There is something called "the poo taboo" says Kallen. "Because poo causes diseases, we have an aversion to talking about it." And not to put too fine a point on it, but it is kind of stinky and gross.

I wondered: When Kallen and Randall are at parties and someone asks what they do ... is the phrase "diarrheal diseases" a conversation stopper?

"It sure is," says Randall.

"Humor is a useful way to broach the subject," says Kallen. "And then make people realize this is a serious thing." Their group even ran a "Poo Haiku" contest that we covered in 2016.

So there you have it — toilets can be both amusing and sobering. In the interest of edutainment, we are sharing intriguing toilet sign photos sent in by our readers. These are from public toilets around the world. And actually, public toilets (or the lack thereof) are part of the problem of access to sanitation. And it's not just in low-resource countries. Just ask a homeless person or even an Uber or Lyft driver in the U.S. how hard it is to find a public latrine when nature calls — especially during the pandemic, says Kallen.

One more point — the pandemic has reminded us all of the importance of washing hands, and some of these clever signs do a nice job driving home that message.

Happy World Toilet Day!

Without further loo ado, here are signs sent in by our loo-yal, er ... loyal readers.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michelle Hiebert espied this warning to take your business inside on a hiking trail along Lake Myvatn, Iceland, during a July 2013 visit. "If I had to caption this, I would say 'Keep Iceland a Nice Land!' (groan)," says Hiebert.
/ Michelle Hiebert
Michelle Hiebert espied this warning to take your business inside on a hiking trail along Lake Myvatn, Iceland, during a July 2013 visit. "If I had to caption this, I would say 'Keep Iceland a Nice Land!' (groan)," says Hiebert.
Bradley Phillips was on a road trip when he spotted this sign at a Burger King in Tuscon, AZ. "By the time I found this sign, I had to laugh," he says. "It captured my feelings precisely!"
/ Bradley Phillips
Bradley Phillips was on a road trip when he spotted this sign at a Burger King in Tuscon, AZ. "By the time I found this sign, I had to laugh," he says. "It captured my feelings precisely!"
Diane Fernandez took this photo at a restaurant in Madrid, N.M., in 2017. Her caption for this image: "Hang on to your hopes and dreams."
/ Diane Fernandez
Diane Fernandez took this photo at a restaurant in Madrid, N.M., in 2017. Her caption for this image: "Hang on to your hopes and dreams."
Cedric Yoshimoto spotted this advertisement in the bathroom of a home improvement store in Thailand. "As you can imagine, this device responds to a certain need. Gulp!" he says.
/ Cedric Yoshimoto
Cedric Yoshimoto spotted this advertisement in the bathroom of a home improvement store in Thailand. "As you can imagine, this device responds to a certain need. Gulp!" he says.
Avila Alonso found this sign in Jordan in 2011. "If I had to write a caption for this picture, it would be: 'Mom, think fast!' " she says.
/ Avila Alonso
Avila Alonso found this sign in Jordan in 2011. "If I had to write a caption for this picture, it would be: 'Mom, think fast!' " he says.
Maria Khan spotted this sign in Japan in 2019. "The flowers and the headache signs made me LOL," she says.
/ Maria Khan
Maria Khan spotted this sign in Japan in 2019. "The flowers and the headache signs made me LOL," she says.
David Hudson came across this sign on a motorcycle trip through Russia. The key below explains the chart in Russian: Boxes with a green tab are "highly recommended," boxes with no markings are "acceptable," boxes with a black X are "not recommended" and boxes with a gray X are "acceptable under exceptional circumstances."
/ David Hudson
David Hudson came across this sign on a motorcycle trip through Russia. The key below explains the chart in Russian: Boxes with a green tab are "highly recommended," boxes with no markings are "acceptable," boxes with a black X are "not recommended" and boxes with a gray X are "acceptable under exceptional circumstances."
A warning against dumping stuff in the toilet, courtesy of Kim Worsham, taken in Taipei, Taiwan.
/ Kim Worsham
A warning against dumping stuff in the toilet, courtesy of Kim Worsham, taken in Taipei, Taiwan.
Jess Lebow submitted "Take One Pace Forward" — a photo taken in a bar in Shanghai, China in April of 2013. Lebow's caption: "Great strides for mankind."
/ Jess Lebow
Jess Lebow submitted "Take One Pace Forward" — a photo taken in a bar in Shanghai, China in April of 2013. Lebow's caption: "Great strides for mankind."
Maria Khan writes, "Here's a sign from Lisbon I took on Aug. 4, 2017. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get in to see if this was actually was the world's sexiest WC." But if Paul Rudd is ever in Lisbon, the newly crowned sexiest man alive (by <em>People </em>magazine) will find his alabaster throne.
/ Maria Khan
Maria Khan writes, "Here's a sign from Lisbon I took on Aug. 4, 2017. Unfortunately I wasn't able to get in to see if this was actually was the world's sexiest WC." But if Paul Rudd is ever in Lisbon, the newly crowned sexiest man alive (by <em>People </em>magazine) will find his alabaster throne.
Jess Lebow took this photo in June of 2014 in the city of Shangri-La in Yunnan Provence, China. Lebow reports: "The laundry room was nowhere to be found."
/ Jess Lebow
Jess Lebow took this photo in June of 2014 in the city of Shangri-La in Yunnan Provence, China. Lebow reports: "The laundry room was nowhere to be found."
A toilet etiquette brushup at Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska. Christy Hurt took the photo in 2019.
/ Christy Hurt
A toilet etiquette brushup at Mendenhall Glacier, Alaska. Christy Hurt took the photo in 2019.
"I was in Mumbai using a coworking space, and I thought their toilet sign was cute and cheeky," says Kim Worsham.
/ Kim Worsham
"I was in Mumbai using a coworking space, and I thought their toilet sign was cute and cheeky," says Kim Worsham.
Jason Mulikita took this photo at the Nansenga School in Chikankata, Zambia. The hand, he says, represents the five key points in the day when one should wash their hands — including after using the toilet.
/ Jason J Mulikita/JJArts Photography
Jason Mulikita took this photo at the Nansenga School in Chikankata, Zambia. The hand, he says, represents the five key points in the day when one should wash their hands — including after using the toilet.