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A cesspool is a covered hole which is used to contain sewage and/or waste. At one time, cesspools were the storage method of choice for waste in many parts of the world, before being replaced by municipal sewer systems and septic tanks. Cesspools, also known as cesspits, are still in use in some regions of the world, although many local building codes discourage or prohibit the construction of cesspools, due to sanitary concerns.
In the classic version of a cesspool, a pit is lined with materials like bricks which essentially creates a large tank underground. Waste and sewage is dumped into the cesspool, which must be periodically emptied to make way for more. Some people delay the eventual emptying by building which is known as a leaching cesspool, a cesspool which allows liquids to escape while retaining solids. As one might imagine, these untreated liquids can cause pollution, along with health problems if they enter the groundwater.
Because cesspools are quite unpleasant inside, the term “cesspool” has come to be associated with filth, decay, and unsavory conditions, which is why you may hear a trashy apartment referred to as a cesspool. The etymology of the word is actually a topic of debate. Some people believe that it comes from the Latin secessus, a “place of retirement” or privy, while others believe it is related to suspiral, “drainpipe,” from the Latin suspirare, “to breathe deeply.” The term may also come from regional dialect; a “cess” is a bog in some parts of Europe.
For archaeologists, cesspools can be extremely interesting. At sites where people once had cesspools, archaeologists can uncover information about what they ate and how they lived by analyzing the contents of abandoned cesspools. Since the material inside has typically dried up, this task is less unpleasant than you might imagine, and it provides crucial insight into the diet and lifestyle of earlier civilizations.
In the modern world, cesspools are still used in some parts of the world where sewer systems have yet to be constructed, and they can create a serious public health risk, especially when they are poorly maintained. Fluids can leak, contaminating soil and groundwater, and cesspools can also attract rats and other vermin which carry disease, while contributing to an unpleasant state of affairs in the nasal passages for passerby. Advocates for public health and basic sanitation in developing nations often support the elimination of cesspools in favor of more sanitary methods of waste disposal as an early priority, as it makes no sense to dig wells or provide water when it can be quickly contaminated.