Bill Gates swaps computers for bad-smelling toilets in innovative bid to tackle sanitation crisis

Foundation is spearheading research into changing the way bad odours smell 

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The Independent Online

Bill Gates has joined forces with a perfume company to help improve sanitation in underdeveloped areas of the world by changing the way bad odours smell. 

The Microsoft founder and philanthropist has diverted his attention away from technology to the altogether less pleasant business of toilets, and more specifically, bad smells, as part of the work carried out by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation, established by Gates and his wife, is now hoping to address a sanitation crisis affecting water supplies and soil in underdeveloped countries by encouraging people living there to use toilets being built. 

Gates says sanitation has long been considered a taboo subject and struggles to attract funding into research as a result, despite having such devastating consequences on health. 

“One billion people have no access to toilets so they defecate out in the open,” he wrote in a blog post explaining his latest challenge. “Three billion more have toilets, but their waste is dumped untreated, seeping into water and food supplies. About 800,000 children under age five die each year from diarrhoea, pneumonia, and other common infections caused by unsafe water and sanitation. Beyond the tremendous human suffering, it’s a problem that slows economic development. In India alone, poor sanitation costs nearly $55 billion each year—more than six per cent of GDP.”

Gates and a team of scientists from the Switzerland-based fragrance company Firmenich are working to deter people from relieving themselves in the open air instead of toilets because of the bad smells emerging from them. 

Researchers are now developing fragrance ingredients which block receptors in the brain to make bad odours smell good. Gates has been in the lab as a guinea pig to test these out, which means smelling odours before and after - an unenviable task. 

“The ingredients in the fragrances developed by Firmenich inhibit the activation of the olfactory receptors sensitive to malodors," he explains. "By blocking the receptors, our brains do not perceive the bad smells.

"I had an opportunity to experience the odour-blocking fragrances in action. I was invited to push my nose into a glass-sniffing tube and breathe in a mixture of the poop perfume I had just experienced and one of the new odour-blocking fragrances. It smelled pretty good. There was no evidence of repulsive odour I had experienced earlier. Instead of stinky sewage, sweat, and ripe cheese, I sniffed a pleasant floral scent.

"The question now is whether this technology is good enough to make a difference in communities with poor sanitation. That’s why Firmenich is launching pilot projects in communities across India and Africa to understand whether the fragrances will make toilets and pit latrines more inviting for users."