Monthly Archives: January 2013

January 24

0124 VB NesfieldJanuary 24, 1972:  Vincent B. Nesfield dies. Nesfield was the first person to use chlorine gas under pressure to disinfect drinking water. In 1903, Lieutenant Vincent B. Nesfield of the British Indian Medical Services published a remarkable paper in a British public health journal. (Nesfield 1903) In the paper, he described his search for a chemical disinfectant to purify drinking water that would be suitable for use in the field as part of a military campaign.  He came up with the idea of producing chlorine gas by electrolytic cells and then compressing the gas with 6 atmospheres of pressure until it liquefied which facilitated its storage in lead-lined steel tanks that held about 20 pounds of liquid chlorine.  He treated 50 gallon batches of water by submerging the gas valve of the chlorine cylinder and opening it slightly to bubble the chlorine gas into the water.

In a later paper, Nesfield stated that about 5.4 mg/L of chlorine (2 grams per 100 gallons) killed all typhoid and cholera bacteria.  After a 5-minute contact time, he added sodium sulphite to the treated water to remove the excess chlorine and prevent taste problems. (Nesfield 1905) To say that he was ahead of his time is a vast understatement.  It would be 7 years before liquid chlorine in pressurized cylinders was widely available in the U.S. for water utilities to use as an alternative to chloride of lime.

Passing references to Nesfield’s unique treatment method can be found in some publications in the early 20th century.  In a discussion of two papers on chlorination of water and sewage in 1911, Dr. L.P. Kinnicutt mentioned Nesfield’s liquid chlorine addition method and went on to describe an iodine tablet developed by Nesfield that was more portable (and undoubtedly caused more taste problems).  Therefore, there was at least some early knowledge in the U.S. of the use of liquid chlorine to disinfect drinking water.  There was one mention of Nesfield’s system of purification in a 1920 encyclopedia section on water supply. (Hill 1920) A note in a journal devoted to tropical medicine in 1907, described how successful chlorination was for a unit of the British colonial army marching toward Agra. (Pure Water 1907)

There was limited mention of Nesfield and his groundbreaking work on chlorine disinfection in histories of drinking water disinfection.  In Race’s remarkable 1918 book on chlorination of water, he gave Nesfield credit for the first use of liquefied chlorine for the disinfection of water. (Race 1918) Baker devoted a few sentences to Nesfield’s contributions. (Baker 1981) In a later summary of the progress of drinking water disinfection in 1950, Race again gave credit for Nesfield’s unique application of chlorine technology. (Race 1950)


Baker, Moses N. 1981. The Quest for Pure Water: the History of Water Purification from the Earliest Records to the Twentieth Century. 2nd Edition. Vol. 1. Denver, Co.: American Water Works Association.

Hill, Henry W. 1920. “Water Supply: For Municipal, Domestic and Potable Purposes, Including Its Sources, Conservation, Purification and Distribution.” In The Encyclopedia Americana, 39–65.

Nesfield, Vincent B. 1903. “A Chemical Method of Sterilizing Water Without Affecting its Potability.” Public Health. 15(7): 601–3.

Nesfield, Vincent B. 1905. “A Simple Chemical Process of Sterilizing Water for Drinking Purposes for Use in the Field and at Home.” The Journal of Preventive Medicine. 8: 623-32.

“Pure Water.” 1907. Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 10(January 15): 30.

Race, Joseph. 1918. Chlorination of Water. New York City, N.Y.: John Wiley & Sons.

Race, Joseph. 1950. “Forty Years of Chlorination: 1910–1949.” Journal Institution of Water Engineers. 4: 479–505.

0124 Edwin ChadwickJanuary 24, 1800:  Edwin Chadwick is born. Edwin Chadwick was an English social reformer who was noted for his work to reform the Poor Laws and improve sanitary conditions and public health. The appointment of the Poor Law Commission in 1834 which included Edwin Chadwick is widely believed to be the beginning of the sanitary movement in England.  Through Chadwick’s work and influence, more sophisticated health statistics were collected which revealed that public health problems were increasing at a rapid rate.  Chadwick imposed his “sanitary idea” which focused on disease prevention.  A survey published by the Poor Law Commission in 1842 detailed the horrific working and living conditions in England at the time.  The report linked epidemic disease, especially related to fever diseases (typhoid, typhus and cholera) to filthy environmental conditions.  Privy vaults, shallow urban wells and piles of garbage and animal excrement in the streets were all related to the increases in disease.

“‘The great preventatives,’” he wrote, “‘drainage, street and house cleansing by means of supplies of water and improved sewerage, and especially the introduction of cheaper and more efficient modes of removing all noxious reuse from the towns, are operations for which aid must be sought from the science of the Civil Engineer, not from the physician, who has done his work when he has pointed out the disease that results from the neglect of proper administrative measures, and has alleviated the sufferings of the victims.’” (Rosen 1993)

Of course, the best way to identify and locate these health threats was to determine where the greatest odors of putrefaction were located and tie the solution to the problem—miasmas.

Chadwick was not ultimately successful in all he tried to do to clean up the noxious wastes in London and other concentrations of population in England.  However, he did have a profound influence on a series of laws that were passed in the mid to late 1800s which began to implement some of his vision. (Rosen 1993) The formation of boards of health and the appointment of health officers under these laws provided advocates for cleaning up the filth.

It is a common misconception among chroniclers of the time period, 1850 to 1900, that the act of installing sewers, in and of itself, was an effective public health protection strategy.  Edwin Chadwick was one of the major proponents of this misconception.  In the 1840s he became one of the leaders of the European Sanitary Movement.  In his famous report published in 1842, Chadwick promoted four themes:

  • Relationship of unsanitary living conditions and disease (based on the miasma theory)
  • Economic effects of poor living conditions
  • Social effects of poor living conditions (e.g., drunkenness, immorality, disease)
  • Need for new administrative systems to effect changes (Halliday 2001)

Chadwick had a vision of vast sewer systems collecting human waste and transporting it out to rural areas where it would be put to beneficial use as fertilizer for farms.  Water supply would be provided to cities through a piped water system from protected sources that were not affected by any locale’s sewage.  Unfortunately, only one out of three parts of Chadwick’s vision were implemented in London and elsewhere.  Sewers were built but the crucial sanitary disposal of human waste on farmland was not.  Sewage was discharged into rivers and lakes after which time no surface supplied drinking water was safe.


Halliday, Stephen. 2001. The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis. London, U.K.: History Press.

Rosen, George. 1993. A History of Public Health. Expanded Edition, Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University.


January 23

0123 Nightsoil Incinerator1January 23, 1913:  Two articles in Engineering News.

“Night Soil Incinerating Furnace at a Contractor’s Camp.” By Arthur W. Tidd, “The new 500-million-gallons-daily Catskill water-system for New York City, now being built by the Board of Water Supply, necessitates that construction work shall be carried on from the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains to New York City, a distance of approximately 100 miles. Throughout the whole length of the line a sanitary control is exercised, under the supervision of sanitary experts employed by the Board of Water Supply, over the housing and living of the laborers employed on the work and the disposal of all wastes.

Clauses are inserted in the specifications of each contract placing upon the contractor the duty of carrying out the provisions required for proper sanitation and specifying in many cases just what these provisions shall be. One of these is the provision that buildings for the sanitary necessities of all persons employed on the work shall be provided, and that all excreta shall be incinerated daily….

0123 Nightsoil Incinerator2For the camp the four corners of the incinerator house are partitioned off into independent closets, entered only from the outside, two for the men having six seats each, two for the women having two seats each. The galvanized pans are used here also, being removed from the back of the closets on the inside of the building as indicated in cross-section of the building shown in Fig. 2.” (emphasis added)

Commentary:  An early commitment by New York City to protect the water supply for the City.

“A Low Record Death Rate for New York City.” “A total of 73,008 deaths in a single city in one year seems appalling until it is known that the city was New York, with a population sufficiently above five million to bring the rate per 1000 down to the remarkably low figure of 14.11. There are possibilities, of course, that the population estimate is too high or that the death registration was incomplete, but there seems to be reasonable basis for confidence in both. This confidence is increased when it is noted that the total number of deaths in 1912 was 2418 less than in 1911, and much less than the average for the ten years 1902-11; that there were heavy reductions over the average for 1902-11, in all the communicable diseases, in mortality from diarrheal diseases under five years of age, and in infant mortality; and that in the large non-communicable class the only increases in 1912 were in deaths from cancer, homicide and organic heart disease–the latter being offset by a decline in deaths from apoplexy and diseases of the arteries.

It is particularly gratifying to note that the typhoid fever death rate for 1912 was 34% less than the average for the previous decade and that the infant-mortality rate for the year was only 105 per 1000 reported births, the lowest ever recorded.”

Commentary:  Improvement in the sanitary quality of the New York City water supply, improvement in the milk supply and better medical care account for much of the progress noted. NYC still had a long way to go. The infant mortality rate was 10% of live births which would be unconscionable today.

Reference:  Engineering News. 1913. 69:4(January 23, 1913): 164, 175.

January 22

Map of common levels of Arsenic in the water supply

Map of common levels of Arsenic in the water supply

January 22, 2001:  Final Rule for Arsenic in Drinking Water. “Today’s final rule revises the current Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) from 50 µg/L to 10 µg/L and sets a Maximum Contaminant Level Goal (MCLG) of zero for arsenic in drinking water. In addition, this final rule also clarifies how compliance is demonstrated for many inorganic and organic contaminants in drinking water…. Both community water systems (CWSs) and non-transient, non-community water systems (NTNCWSs) will be required to reduce the arsenic concentration in their drinking water systems to 10 µg/L…. All CWSs and all NTNCWSs that exceed the MCL of 10 µg/L will be required to come into compliance 5 years after the publication of the final rule. Beginning with reports that are due by July 1, 2002, all CWSs will begin providing health information and arsenic concentrations in their annual consumer confidence report (CCR) for water that exceeds ½ the new MCL….

In the 1996 amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), Congress directed EPA to propose a new arsenic regulation by January 1, 2000 and to issue the final rule by January 1, 2001 (Congress subsequently extended the final rule date to June 22, 2001). EPA published the proposed rule for arsenic on June 22, 2000. The rule proposed an MCL of 5 µg/L for arsenic and EPA took comment on regulatory options of 3 µg/L (the feasible level), 10 µg/L and 20 µg/L. The 1996 amendments to SDWA added discretionary authority for the EPA Administrator to adjust the maximum contaminant level (MCL) if the benefits would not justify the costs (§1412(b)(6)). Today’s rule is important because it is the second drinking water regulation in which EPA will use the discretionary authority under §1412(b)(6) of SWDA. After careful consideration of the benefits and the costs, EPA has decided to set the drinking water standard for arsenic higher than the technically feasible level of 3 µg/L because EPA believes that the costs would not justify the benefits at this level. EPA believes that the final MCL of 10 µg/L maximizes health risk reduction at a cost justified by the benefits.”

January 21

0121 Passaic Valley SewerJanuary 21, 1915:  Municipal Journal article—Construction Features of the Passaic Valley Sewer. “The Passaic Valley sewer, which will carry to New York Bay the sewage formerly turned into the Passaic river by some dozen or more municipalities in northern New Jersey, is now about one-third completed. Actual construction work has been going on for about two and a half years and it is estimated that it will require at least three years more to finish the work, the total cost of which will be about $12,000,000. Practically all the contacts have now been let for the work and construction is going on rapidly.

From Paterson, where it is a pipe four feet in diameter, the sewer parallels the Passaic river to its mouth, receiving on its way the sewage from Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Belleville, Nutley, Passaic, Paterson, Acquackanonk, Garfield, Wallington, Harrison, East Newark and Newark. At the latter place the tube, now twelve feet in diameter, makes a vertical drop of about 268 feet (to a distance of 250 feet below sea level) to pass under Newark bay. At Bayonne it rises 168 feet and at this elevation (100 feet below ground level) passes under Bayonne and New York bay to Robbins Reef where it discharges through pipes into the bay. On the salt meadows just outside Newark will be erected the pumping and treating plants. Here the sewage will be screened and passed through grit and sedimentation chambers to remove all the objectionable suspended material possible. Sufficient head will be maintained at the pumping plant to force the sewage into the bay. The final discharge will be through concrete pipes from the terminal chamber on the reef. By a fan-like arrangement of outlet pipes, a thorough distribution of the sewage will be assured”

Commentary:  This is the intercepting sewer that Dr. John L. Leal pushed for when he was health officer for Paterson, New Jersey.

Reference:  Municipal Journal. “Construction Features of the Passaic Valley Sewer.” 38:3(January 21, 1915): 59.

January 20

0120 Lowell Filter PlantJanuary 20, 1916:  Municipal Journal article–New Filtration Plant Completed. “Lowell, Mass.-The city’s new $225,000 filtration plant is now in operation. The building is of concrete, with red tile roof, and is artistic in design. The filtration or purification plant is located on the north side of the boulevard, immediately opposite the lower pumping station. It consists of six coke prefilters, 10 feet in depth and two-fifths of an acre in total area; a settling basin, divided into two units, with a total capacity of 500,000 gallons; six sand filters, with a total area of one acre; and a filtered water reservoir of 1,000,000 gallons capacity. All of the operations involved are controlled in the building shown in the accompanying illustration, where are contained the main valves and recording apparatus. At the rate of 75 million gallons per acre per day through the prefilters. and a 10 million gallon rate through the sand filters the areas provided have a capacity of a 10-million gallon daily output. Allowing for cleaning and for the possible desirability of a lower rate through the coke, the plant is believed to be ample for an average daily supply of 7,500,000 to 8,500,000 gallons, or-if the past growth of the population holds in the future-sufficient for the needs of the city until 1935.”

January 20, 1916:  Municipal Journal article–Engineers’ Report on Water Supplies. “Watertown, N. Y.-The report of Hazen, Whipple & Fuller, the consulting engineers, who for several months past have been investigating available sources from which Watertown might secure its water supply has been presented to city officials. The report is an exhaustive one and is supplemented by maps of the available areas prepared under the direction of the engineers. Four possible sources aside from the one now used are considered in the report, and, while no recommendations are made, statistics of the cost of the works and cost of maintenance all of which are embodied in the report, show that the possible supply from the north branch of Sandy Creek is the most satisfactory and least expensive. The report shows that the proposed Pine Plains source would not furnish a sufficient supply of water from wells alone. While the city at the present time consumes approximately 6,000.000 gallons of water a day, the commissioners decided before the survey started that no supply would he considered satisfactory unless it would furnish at least 12.000,000 gallons per day. This would assure a supply that could be used without addition for many years to come.”

Reference: “Engineers’ Report on Water Supplies.” 1916. Municipal Journal. 40:3(January 20, 1916): 82-3.

January 19

0119 Canton WellJanuary 19, 1918:  Municipal Journal article–Well Drilling by Canton Water Department. “The superintendent of the Canton, Miss., electric light and water works, J. T. Sharp, Jr., furnishes the following information, with accompanying photograph, describing work done recently in drilling a new well for the water supply. The water works is owned and operated by the city under a commission, being now in its 13th year. A complete well-drilling outfit forms a part of its equipment, by which the city is able to drill deep wells and do any well repairing that is necessary. Two sources of supply are available to the city, one at 1,020 ft. deep which will rise 12 ft. above the surface, and another at a depth of 375 ft. which will rise to a level of 14 ft. below the surface. A well tapping the latter supply drops only 23 ft. when yielding 300 to 350 gallons per minute, or to a point 37 ft. below the surface.”

January 19, 1918:  Municipal Journal article–“State Demands Adequate Sewage Disposal. Syracuse, N. Y.-Demands that the city proceed immediately to carry out an acceptable plan for disposing of its sewage have been made upon mayor Walter R. Stone and the intercepting sewer board by the state department of health. The state refuses to permit the city to put off for another year the adoption and carrying out of a plan whereby sewage will be removed from Onondaga creek and the barge canal harbor. All of the city’s sewage now flows directly into the harbor and while it will not become objectionable within a year, it must be diverted without unnecessary delay. According to Henry C. Allen, city engineer, the city is only awaiting the result of tests now being made by Glenn D. Holmes, chief engineer of the intercepting sewer board, to determine whether the activated sludge or aerated-filter system js best suited to conditions.”

Reference:  Municipal Journal. 1918. 44:3(January 19, 1918) 56, 59.

January 18

0118 sewer explosionJanuary 18, 1911:  Several interesting stories from the Municipal Journal and Engineer. “Sewer Explosion. Erie, Pa.-An explosion occurred in a sewer at the intersection of Twelfth and Cranberry streets, Jan. 4. Manhole covers were thrown high in the air, the roadway was torn up and telegraph poles thrown down. The explosion is attributed to gas or gasoline.

Anti-Spitting Ordinances to Be Rigidly Enforced. Walla Walla, Wash.-Chief of Police Mike Davis has announced that hereafter the anti-spitting ordinance will be rigidly enforced. By way of warning the large Red Cross anti-spitting cards will again be posted conspicuously about the city. One of the most impressive of these is the following: “A world without careless spitters would soon be a world without consumption.”

Commentary: While this is a blog about the history of water, it should be realized that at the same time that engineers and city leaders were trying to build treatment plants and sewage disposal facilities, they were also battling the scourge of tuberculosis. The anti-spitting campaign was one of the chief weapons in that fight.

Sanitary Sewer Connections with Storm Sewers Condemned. Duluth, Minn.-In the annual report which he filed with Health Commissioner H. E. Webster, Plumbing Inspector George Kreager strongly recommends a discontinuance of the practice of allowing sanitary sewer connections to be made with storm sewers. He declares that it has come to be a most serious problem to the city. He states that in the dry season the stench from the catch basins of storm sewers which have sanitary sewer connections emptying into them is ‘awful.’”

Reference:  Municipal Journal and Engineer. 30:3(January 18, 1911) 90-1.